Lawmakers haggle over group tax breaks

Published 12:00 am Sunday, June 7, 2009

BATON ROUGE (AP) — While Louisiana’s Legislature cuts the state budget, forcing layoffs at universities and elsewhere, some lawmakers are still trying to do the opposite: pass tax breaks, for groups including crawfishermen, farmers, public school workers and paper mills.

About $8 million in tax breaks are accounted for in the current $28 billion budget proposal. Those bills appear certain to become law, because they all have one thing in common: the support of Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration.

The governor’s original budget plan set aside $8 million in tax breaks for movie producers, video game companies, music recording firms and other industries.

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Lawmakers trying to win tax breaks without the governor’s support are on their own: their bills’ fates depend on how successfully those lawmakers can negotiate with colleagues as the legislative session’s final weeks wind down. Even then, their bills could run into the governor’s veto pen.

‘‘Everybody wants a tax break. Everybody wants a deduction. But we tried to get our arms around it,’’ said Rep. Hunter Greene, R-Baton Rouge, chairman of the House’s tax-writing committee.

A conversation last week between two lawmakers — one from south Louisiana, the other from the north part of the state — illustrated the balancing act that plays out as legislators who support narrow tax breaks are forced to seek ‘‘Yes’’ votes from their colleagues. Rep. Jonathan Perry was pushing a bill that would give a tax break to 1,410 public school counselors.

Rep. Hollis Downs said to Perry: ‘‘We’re laying off people at every college and university in the state right now … In a year in which we’re doing that, is this a time to pay an increased benefit to someone else?’’

Perry replied: ‘‘I think so. Yeah. I still like it.’’

Perry, an Abbeville Republican, said his bill would give those 1,410 highly skilled people — nationally certified school psychologists, social workers, speech pathologists and audiologists — a financial incentive to stay in Louisiana, rather than seek jobs in other states.

Downs had another perspective: he’s a Ruston Republican with Louisiana Tech University in his district, where budget cuts mean Downs’ constituents are losing their jobs. Perry’s argument didn’t persuade Downs — he voted ‘‘No’’ — but it worked on most House members, who overwhelmingly approved the bill and sent it to the Senate.

Similar debates will continue on Perry’s and other tax breaks, in both chambers, until the Legislature’s session ends on or about June 25.

Lots of tax break bills have some chance of getting through to the governor’s desk, though it’s impossible to accurately estimate the total dollar figure they collectively represent, said Greg Albrecht, chief economist with the Legislature’s Fiscal Office, which advises lawmakers on the estimated value each bill represents.

‘‘You know that all these tax credits are not going to happen. But there will be a few to pick from at the end’’ of the session, Albrecht said.

Perry’s bill is representative of some of the tax breaks that remain in play but lack the governor’s blessing.

The legislation would not take effect until January, so it means nothing to the 2009-10 spending plan that’s now up for debate. The bill would give a $5,000 state income tax deduction, on 2010 tax forms, to four types of public school workers, for a total cost to the state of $302,000 — a tiny sum in a state budget in the $28 billion range.

Other lawmakers have bills that would give tax breaks to select groups in their districts. One is Rep. John Guinn’s bill, which the Jennings Republican wants passed to benefit the crawfishermen in his and other south Louisiana parishes. The Fiscal Office said Guinn’s bill would cost the state less than $250,000 in revenue — a relatively small figure, but Guinn faces lots of competition as other lawmakers push their own proposals.

Others would benefit farmers, paper mills and selected small businessmen.

‘‘There’s more tax breaks and incentives floating around out here than there is money,’’ said Rep. Jim Morris, R-Oil City. ‘‘Something’s not going to get through.’’

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