Teacher pay bill clears hurdle

Published 12:00 am Saturday, June 3, 2000

AP and staff reports

So far, the only tax measure that appeared to be on track in the Louisiana Legislature as of Friday was one that will do nothing to solve this year’s budget crunch.

The Senate Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Committee approved a House-passed bill that asks the voters if they are willing to pay more income tax to give pay raises to teachers, school support workers and university professors.

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&uot;I appreciate the effort, and I&160;hope it gets passed,&uot;&160;said Vidalia High teacher Kenneth Hathaway. &uot;I don’t want to hurt (taxpayers), but this raise is needed.&uot;

In early May, more than 5,000 teachers and school support employees, including 200 from Concordia Parish, picketed on the State Capitol steps to gain pay raises. Louisiana teachers make an average of $32,300 a year, while the southeastern average is $37,000.

The constitutional change would also abolish the 3-penny sales tax on food and utilities. Under the plan, anyone with an adjusted federal gross income of $25,000 or less would get a tax break.

If the Senate goes along and the House approves of routine Senate committee changes, the bill would be before the voters this fall. If they approve, the pay raises would still be a year and a half away because of the way income tax is collected.

Also on Friday, the Senate voted to take away a $70 million tax break for business and a $25 million break for parents in hopes of plugging a $246 million budget hole for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

That bill is just one of a handful of tax bills that are moving through the legislative process. Lawmakers are far from certain that any of them will become law.

Senate President John Hainkel and House Speaker Charlie DeWitt predict the budget picture will not be clear until Wednesday, the final day of the fiscal session.

”It’s another one of the tax balls that are floating in the air,” Sen. Jay Dardenne, R-Baton Rouge, said Friday as the Senate approved the repeal of the tax breaks.

The bill was a complete rewrite of a House-passed bill that originally would have prohibited the use of federal itemized deductions in preparing individual state income tax returns.

Now, the revamped bill returns to the House, which has routinely rejected Senate changes to House tax bills. Most of the other major tax bills are in House-Senate committees for compromises that may not be reached until the final hours of the session.

The Senate was to debate the proposed $13.8 billion state budget on Sunday. That bill, too, could wind up in a compromise committee, although House leaders said Friday the full House may accept the Senate version.

The tax bill approved by the Senate on Friday affects businesses that currently take a credit against their state taxes to compensate them for the local taxes they pay on their inventories.

Half that credit would be stripped under the bill approved by the Senate.

The same bill also strips, for the next two years, the $25 per-child education tax credit parents enjoy under current law.

The bill would fund about $95 million worth of the $246 million in programs currently unfunded in the proposed budget for the 2000-2001 fiscal year that begins July 1.

While the Senate debated that bill, House leaders continued to express frustration at the lack of a budget solution with only a few days left in the session.

”I’m still in the same boat I was in three months ago,” said Rep. Jerry LeBlanc, D-Lafayette, who chairs the House’s budget committee. ”There’s no consensus on cuts. There’s no consensus on revenue.”

Earlier this session, the House sent the Senate a few tax bills that made minor increases in some taxes.

The Senate responded earlier this week by changing the measures to greatly increase taxes on tobacco, alcoholic drinks and riverboat gambling. Revenue from those bills would raise around $200 million, according to some estimates.

House Speaker Charlie DeWitt said Friday that House members are unhappy at the Senate’s attempt to put too many taxes on the tobacco, alcohol and riverboat gambling industries.

Some House members would prefer to spread the burden among other individuals and businesses. But, their efforts to do that have not received the necessary two-thirds vote.

DeWitt, who did not try to push any new tax measures through the House on Friday, also expressed his frustration with business lobbyists who have been able to kill most any business tax so far this session.

”It’s a shame whenever business is controlling what’s coming out of both houses,” DeWitt said.

The Senate’s inventory tax measure, backed by Gov. Mike Foster, was an answer to the complaint by DeWitt and others. Business could not stop the Senate’s new bill, which passed 32-8 with 26 votes needed.