One-time money, sales tax increase focus of Ascension town hall meeting

“I didn’t think it could get any worse, but now we’ve got the tax reform so here we go again.” State Rep. Edward Price, D-Gonzales “I can’t see spending one-time money to pay the light bill.” State Rep. Eddie Lambert, R-Prairieville

State government’s use of one-time money and Gov. Bobby Jindal’s attempt to increase the state’s sales tax dominated discussion during Monday’s town hall meeting involving legislators from Ascension and neighboring parishes.

State Reps. Johnny Berthelot, Eddie Lambert and Edward Price shared their thoughts about the upcoming session and fielded questions from about 25 residents at Cabela’s. The 90-minute meeting was hosted by the Ascension Chamber of Commerce.

Under Jindal’s proposal, the state’s personal income and corporate taxes would disappear in favor of an increased state sales tax and a broadening of the base. The state sales tax would increase from 4 percent to 6.25 percent. In addition, many currently untaxed services would be taxed, including a wide range of services that businesses purchase from other businesses.

All three legislators expressed their concerns about the plan Monday.

Lambert, the Prairieville Republican who sits on the House’s Ways and Means Committee, said the governor has presented “a moving target” that’s likely to create more problems than it solves.

“That’s gonna be a real burden on a lot of small businesses,” Lambert said.

Price, D-Gonzales, said the state’s Legislative Black Caucus has created an alternative tax restructuring plan that would slowly decrease the income tax instead of eliminating it outright, but he admitted it too was a moving target at the moment. The Black Caucus’ plan does not include a sales tax increase and would eliminate a number of income tax exemptions, he said.

Price said he is afraid that after a contentious 2012 legislative session that featured lengthy discussions about education and the state’s retirement systems, this session would again be a very difficult one because of the proposed tax changes.

“I didn’t think it could get any worse, but now we’ve got the tax reform so here we go again,” Price said.

Berthelot, R-Gonzales, who sits on the House’s Appropriations Committee, said one of his main concerns about increasing the state’s sales tax is that it would make it more difficult for local governments to persuade voters to renew existing taxes or pass new ones.

“I think we’re going to cripple local government if we pass this thing,” Berthelot said.

State Sens. Jody Amedee, R-Gonzales, and Troy Brown, D-Napoleonville, and state Rep. Clay Schexnayder, R-Sorrento, were unable to attend the meeting.

Another issue that was discussed at length was the Legislature’s budgeting process.

Berthelot said he has been meeting three days a week for the past three weeks with the Appropriations Committee to make preparations for the upcoming session, which begins on April 8, and “the future does not look too good for the state of Louisiana.”

Berthelot said he’s concerned about Jindal’s continued reliance on one-time money, or nonrecurring revenue, to balance the budget. This year’s budget plan focuses on privatizing the charity hospital system and selling property to balance the budget, he said.

“Gov. Jindal is a very, very smart person and I want to be on his side, but I can’t support spending nonrecurring revenue,” Berthelot said.

Lambert said: “I’m kind of like Johnny. I can’t see spending one-time money to pay the light bill.”

Price, meanwhile, said he supports eliminating all use of nonrecurring revenue and contingency plan revenue from the budget and presenting a balanced budget that does not have to be amended later in the fiscal year.

“When we leave Baton Rouge after the session, people need to know what the budget is,” Price said.

Berthelot said legislators need to “man up and woman up” and focus on cutting programs that aren’t working and are no longer useful. That’s the best way to fix some of the problems facing the state.

“I don’t know all the answers, but I know the problem,” he said. “We’re funding too many programs that aren’t working.”