Cellphone tax deal has issues

With an interpreter translating her hand movements into spoken words, Jackie Broussard pleaded with legislators Thursday to tax cellphones in Louisiana.

The money generated by House Bill 238, which would lower an existing tax on land lines while expanding it to cellphones and pagers, would provide interpreters and tools to hearing impaired residents.

“How do we communicate with doctors and nurses? ... We have no communication. We’re disconnected from the world,” Broussard told the state Senate Finance Committee.

The committee settled on a compromise, although it was one that the bill’s sponsor warned would be a nightmare for communications companies to implement.

HB238 skidded into some committee members’ aversion to tax hikes.

Two committee members, including Chairman state Sen. Jack Donahue, signed Americans for Tax Reform President Grover Norquist’s pledge against supporting tax increases.

“Some of us are going to have a problem voting for this bill,” Donahue, R-Mandeville, told the bill’s sponsor, state Rep. Patrick Williams, D-Shreveport.

Gov. Bobby Jindal — a Norquist signee himself — offered to find dollars elsewhere to bolster tax collections diminished by the migration from land lines to cellphones.

State Sen. Ed Murray, D-New Orleans and a committee member, suggested holding the bill. He reminded Donahue that a solution to the deaf community’s funding problem now exists in another bill.

Williams said the amendment written to implement the governor’s solution contains errors. He said the amendment deals with something else entirely.

“Can you hold it on the floor?” he suggested, asking the committee to move his bill to the full Senate while the problem is resolved with the amendment.

“I don’t know if it comes out of committee,” Donahue told him.

The bill would add 2 cents to the monthly bills for most cellphones and pagers. Consumers in Louisiana currently pay an extra 5 cents a month for residential and business local lines. The money generated goes to the Louisiana Commission for the Deaf, which was formed in 1980 to facilitate accessibility for the deaf, deaf and blind, hard of hearing and speech impaired.

HB238 aims to generate $1.9 million a year, or roughly $1 million more than the land line tax currently produces.

Donahue asked if the new tax could be changed to 1.5 cents.

Williams said that would be an accounting nightmare because of the difficulty in collecting only a portion of a penny.

The committee amended the bill anyway to reflect a 1.5 cent tax and advanced the legislation to the full Senate.

Williams said he will drop the bill once the governor’s solution materializes in a correct form.