Stephanie Grace: Jindal off-track on taxes

It must be so hard to be a member of the Louisiana Tax Commission these days. Everyone, it seems, is picking on them.

The Louisiana legislative auditor issued a devastating report accusing the commission of falling down on the job, which is basically to make sure the state’s elected tax assessors are doing their job. Quite simply, the audit states, “LTC’s oversight of parish tax assessors does not ensure that residential property tax assessments are accurate.”

Editorialists used the occasion to unfavorably compare the commissioners appointed by Gov. Bobby Jindal to those installed by his predecessor, Kathleen Blanco.

And Dan Juneau, the influential president of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, characterized the group’s oversight as pretty much the opposite of diligent and conscientious.

Commission members say they’re just misunderstood.

In a woe-is-me response to Auditor Daryl Purpera’s criticisms, its management accused auditors of not understanding the law and the facts, of using visual gimmicks to mislead readers into thinking properties assigned wildly divergent market values are comparable — and even of approaching the investigation “with a predisposed intent to find fault where none exists.”

It said the audit also “fails to take into consideration” that state law establishes a 15-day review period when taxpayers can review tax rolls and raise complaints to their assessors — not just if they think they’re overassessed but also if they believe their neighbors are getting an unfair break.

Apparently, in the commissioners’ minds, individual residents should police the system themselves.

Among its specific complaints, the commission argued it can’t afford to check every assessment that appears to vary from fair market value by more than the allowable 9 percent to 11 percent range — a description that fit 39 percent of more than 6,000 properties the auditor reviewed.

The audit countered the commission should develop a more streamlined “risk-based” follow-up process.

In the end, the commissioners checked the “disagree” column for four of the auditor’s five recommendations. They agreed only that the commission should look into assigning each taxpayer a “unique identifier” to track whether they claim multiple homestead exemptions in different parishes.

Even then, they shrugged off the likelihood of abuse, arguing the number of discrepancies amounts to a drop in a proverbial bucket, and they can often be legitimately explained.

Of the many things the commissioners failed to note, though, is that the assessor system demands tough oversight because it’s practically built for abuse.

Elected assessors have clear incentive to cut constituents and supporters a break, and there’s pretty ample evidence that many of them do just that.

At the least, they can and often have ignored mandates to make sure assessments reflect increases in market value, particularly for longtime property owners.

If that means local governments raise less tax revenue than they need, or that newcomers bear an unfair tax burden, well, that’s someone else’s problem.

They’ve also shown a knack for flexing their muscles in the state arena, including with governors who have historically appointed assessor-friendly tax commissions.

Reacting to the legislative audit, Juneau — generally a Jindal ally, though he helped kill the governor’s attempt to eliminate income taxes last spring — went so far as to cast Blanco as committed to good government, and Jindal as beholden to cronies.

When Blanco won office in 2003, Juneau wrote, he “told her that the property tax system in Louisiana was a mess and the LTC could play a key role in cleaning it up.”

“Gov. Blanco subsequently appointed the most reform-oriented commission in modern history,” he said.

After Jindal’s 2007 election, Juneau said, he urged the governor-elect to stay on track, for the sake of economic development. This time, his pleas went unheeded.

“The assessors largely were big supporters of Gov. Jindal in the 2007 election. Shortly after his inauguration, he feted them with a fancy dinner in the Governor’s Mansion,” Juneau wrote. “They obviously had strong influence in his appointment of commission members.”

Blanco understood Louisiana needed a fairer tax system, and, in a break with her predecessors, chose commissioners who believed greater scrutiny would lead to fairness and functionality. Jindal is smart enough to understand that, too. Unfortunately, he put his political fortunes ahead of progress.

Stephanie Grace can be contacted at sgrace@theadvocate.com.