Legislature regroups on income tax

With the governor’s push to repeal state income taxes declared dead for the session, legislators shifted their focus Tuesday.

The House Committee on Ways and Means debated bills that would allow state income tax filers to donate part of their refunds to cancer research and the Crescent City Connection.

Behind the scenes, legislators regrouped; Gov. Bobby Jindal read scripture at a prayer breakfast; and a national anti-tax increase group chided legislators for abandoning tax repeal.

The day started with the Louisiana Legislative Black Caucus holding its first of what the group says will be an annual prayer breakfast.

The event came just a day after the chairman of the Louisiana House Ways and Means Committee balked at the governor’s request that legislators advance a bill to eliminate the state’s income taxes. State Rep. Joel Robideaux, R-Lafayette, said state revenue concerns are too great to consider the idea.

With his major initiative dead on the political battleground less than two weeks into the session, the governor made an unannounced stop at the prayer breakfast.

State Rep. Patricia Smith, D-Baton Rouge, said the governor read from the Bible and made nonpolitical remarks.

“It was all on prayerfulness,” Smith said.

The caucus’ chairwoman, state Rep. Katrina Jackson, said attendees were instructed to focus on prayer and not politics.

“We (told) anyone who came it was purely about prayer,” she said.

Jackson, D-Monroe, is in the process of ripping apart the caucus’ tax package in the wake of Robideaux’s announcement. As chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, Robideaux decides which bills get heard. He has made it clear he will not entertain income tax repeal proposals.

Just weeks ago, Robideaux was the lead sponsor of the governor’s package to eliminate the state’s personal income and corporate taxes in exchange for a higher state sales tax rate and taxing currently untaxed services.

The governor abandoned his package last week and asked legislators to send him their own bill for getting rid of the income tax.

With the state in the midst of back-to-back years of budget problems, Robideaux abandoned the push entirely.

Americans for Tax Reform, a national group that asks legislators and political candidates to promise in writing that they will oppose tax increases, released a column Tuesday criticizing “short-sighted legislators” for sidelining Jindal’s repeal push.

“Louisiana legislators who want to table income tax relief are causing their state to be left behind,” the organization wrote.

Meanwhile, Louisiana House Republicans publicly commended Robideaux on Tuesday for deferring discussion of income tax repeal.

“While repeal of the income tax is a significant Republican goal, most of our members were concerned about how to pay for the billions of dollars in lost revenue,” said House Republican Delegation Chairman Lance Harris, R-Alexandria.

The Louisiana Legislative Black Caucus dropped major parts of its tax package, which originally included a reduction in income tax rates.

Now the caucus will push for a 32-cent cigarette tax increase, a broader electronic filing system for business taxes and a platform for capturing Internet sales taxes in the event Congress passes necessary legislation.

Jackson said Robideaux made it clear that bigger tax changes are not up for discussion.

“We can put this issue down now and move forward with the issue that is the most pressing now, which is the $1.3 billion deficit,” Jackson said, referring to the revenue shortfall in next year’s state budget.

The abandonment of the income tax repeal lightened the House Ways and Means Committee’s agenda Tuesday.

The panel zipped through its abbreviated agenda and advanced income tax return checkoff legislation — proposals that would be meaningless if state income tax disappeared.

In the 2011 tax year, tax filers in Louisiana donated $619,806 from their state refunds to military families, coastal restoration, animal welfare and other causes. They made the donations by checking boxes on their state returns.

House Bill 153 would expand an existing checkoff box to include research for all types of cancer. House Bill 416 would allow tax filers to donate part of their refunds to keeping decorative lights lit up on the Crescent City Connection.

Both instruments now move to the House floor.