DSA New Orleans 2020

Voter Guide

Amendment 1

“Do you support an amendment declaring that, to protect human life, a right to abortion and the funding of abortion shall not be found in the Louisiana Constitution?” (Introduced as Act 447 of the 2019 legislature by Rep. Katrina Jackson)

As of the moment that this guide is being written, the legal right to abortion is considered to be settled law in the United States. However, if the current vacancy on the US Supreme Court is filled by a conservative anti-abortion justice such as the hard-line theocrat President Trump has nominated, the status of that right could change. Louisiana lawmakers have anticipated such a moment for years now and have already passed statutes with so-called “trigger” clauses that would ban abortion in the state outright if the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision ever happens to be overturned.

If that were to happen, however, there remains the possibility that the Louisiana state Constitution itself, by virtue of its language on the right to privacy and due process may be found by a state court to invalidate the trigger law and uphold the right to abortion in Louisiana. This amendment is an attempt to explicitly alter the constitution in order to close off that possibility.

The fundamental right to an abortion is already under serious threat at the national and state levels. Adding this additional just-in-case bank shot preventative to the list of obstacles now only exacerbates the injury. Obviously, we are voting NO to this amendment.

Amendment 2

“Do you support an amendment to permit the presence or production of oil or gas to be included in the methodology used to determine the fair market value of an oil or gas well for the purpose of property assessment?” (Introduced as Act 368 of the 2020 legislature by Rep. Mike Huval)

This amendment attempts to settle a long running dispute between local property tax assessors and oil and gas producers over the fair tax value of an oil well. Right now, an assessor can only consider the market value of the property itself and the replacement cost of equipment when determining the appropriate tax liability of a well. The change here would allow them to also consider the value of the oil or gas it produces.

The revenue effect of this change is not exactly clear. It may result in higher tax assessments in some jurisdictions and lower assessments in others. Because it will more directly correlate the value of oil and gas production to tax assessments, it could be considered a new form of tax on fossil fuel production. But, because this amendment enjoys the support of the industry, we do not expect it is any direct threat to it in general.

Of course, Louisiana needs to wean itself off of fossil fuels altogether for the sake of its public health, for the sake of its diminishing coast, and for the sake of mitigating the global hazards of climate change. This change in tax methodology doesn’t appear to get us any closer to that goal either.

Amendment 3

“Do you support an amendment to allow for the use of the Budget Stabilization Fund, also known as the Rainy Day Fund, for state costs associated with a disaster declared by the federal government?” (Introduced as Act 367 of the 2020 legislature by Rep. Gary Carter)

The ordinary purpose of the “Rainy Day Fund” is to serve as an emergency backstop during a state fiscal crisis. Each year a portion of oil and gas revenues and the occasional budget surplus is stored away. Later, if revenues fall below certain thresholds, the fund can be tapped to help make up the difference. Doing so requires a two thirds vote of each house of the legislature so it has to be a situation that everyone agrees is pretty serious. This amendment would allow the state to access that money in the event of a federally declared emergency such as a flood or a hurricane.

But aside from having the effect of adding true rainy days to the reasons for dipping into the Rainy Day fund, it isn’t clear what the actual benefit of this change would be. A federal disaster declaration typically carries with it the promise of federal reimbursement for disaster-related expenses. Therefore the need to tap the state’s own emergency fund seems minimal. At best, it might be a way of expediting certain payments after an emergency. But even that seems dubious given that tapping the fund still requires a supermajority vote of the legislature. It should be noted that this amendment and its companion statute were not debated in committee. The companion amendments suggest reimbursement of the fund with federal money, but as written could also easily be overridden in the state budget process.

Overall there are too many questions about why this is necessary with too few obvious answers. Until or unless someone can provide those answers, we’d prefer to just vote NO.

Amendment 4

“Do you support an amendment to limit the growth of the expenditure limit for the state general fund and dedicated funds and to remove the calculation of its growth factor from the Constitution?” (Introduced as Act 366 of the 2020 legislature by Rep. Beau Beaulieu)

During the spring legislative session this year, Rep. Rick Edmonds of Baton Rouge tried and failed to pass a bill that would have imposed an arbitrary annual spending limit of 98 percent of the actual projected annual budget. Louisiana already requires that each annual budget balances spending with projected revenues. Since Edmonds’s bill would have mandated an additional 2 percent of those revenues go unspent, it could only have forced unnecessary cuts to already underfunded critical state services particularly in health care and higher education. What could possibly be the benefit of that?

And yet, here is Rep. Beaulieu’s plan to accomplish the same thing through a slightly different math. This amendment would arbitrarily limit the annual growth of state budget projections to a maximum of 5% regardless of any given year’s actual revenue estimates. Again we have to ask, other than throwing up unnecessary barriers to funding critical services, what could possibly be the point? Vote NO.

Amendment 5

“Do you support an amendment to authorize local governments to enter into cooperative endeavor ad valorem tax exemption agreements with new or expanding manufacturing establishments for payments in lieu of taxes?” (Introduced as Act 370 of the 2020 legislature by Sen. Mark Abraham)

There is a famous Huey Long speech in which the Kingfish describes Republicans and Democrats as two different brands of the same snake oil. One product called, “High Popalarum” Huey would say is derived by stripping the bark of a tree from the top down. The other, “Low Popahirum” is made from the same bark of the same tree but stripped from the bottom up. This metaphor also applies to the key distinction between Louisiana’s Industrial Tax Exemption Program (ITEP) and the type of business tax break referred to in this amendment known as a Payment In Lieu Of Taxes (PILOT). Do you want your public funds stripped away into private tax subsidies from the front, or from the back?

Both of these policies affect a taking of public money from municipal governments, school boards, and other local entities funded by property taxes, and hand it over to a big business such as a chemical plant or a real estate developer. Both programs are predicated on the false promise of a public benefit through the “trickle-down” effect of jobs, housing, or boosted tax revenues due to incidental activity granted by the “incentivized” business owner. The key difference between them is the ITEP genie promises to grant these wishes at the end of its run. A PILOT delivers them up front in the form of a lump sum payment. But either way the product is the same. Public services are impoverished by the tax break for the benefit of a single private entity.

This amendment would liberalize the rules under which state and local governments enter into PILOTs such that say, for example, a major chemical producer, like Cameron LNG here, is considering a major expansion of its facility. And say, also, that the company isn’t all that interested in paying decades worth of property taxes that might sustain the local public schools, libraries, parks, etc. Such a company might very much prefer instead to just pay one big bribe up front to whoever currently sits on the local council or police jury. Those politicians could immediately use the money to fund one-time pet projects or pass it out to friends at their discretion. Cameron is happy. The local pols are happy. By the time the bill for any of this comes due, it will be paid in the form of cuts to essential services. But when that happens, nobody will be the wiser. Cameron LNG has been trying to pull this very thing off for a few years now, in fact. But so far they have met resistance from citizen groups like Together Louisiana and been denied by the courts. Amendment 5 only made the ballot this year because citizens were unable to participate in legislative proceedings as a result of the COVID-19 stay-at-home order.

If Amendment 5 passes, it would give oil & gas lobbyists even more incentive to invest massive amounts of money, in the form of campaign donations, in every level of government, from your school board, your city or parish council or police jury, to your sheriff. It would allow a system of institutionalized bribery to expand much to the benefit of a few and at the great expense of many. We are voting NO.

Amendment 6

“Do you support an amendment to increase the maximum amount of income a person may receive and still qualify for the special assessment level for residential property receiving the homestead exemption?” (Introduced as Act 369 of the 2020 legislature by Rep. Stephanie Hilferty)

Louisiana homeowners over 65 years of age currently enjoy a number of special property tax considerations including a so-called “freeze” on tax assessments. This simply means that the assessed tax liability on their “homestead” or property of primary residence cannot go up even as property values increase. To qualify for the freeze, the current law states that homeowners must receive a maximum income of $50,000. (This figure was set in 2001 to increase with inflation so it effectively is $77,000 at present.)

What Amendment 6 would do is increase the income threshold to $100,000. So we’re really talking about a narrowly targeted benefit. According to the bill’s fiscal note, in fact, “it seems possible that most age-65 or older homeowners in the state are already eligible for and/or receiving the special assessment.” So this amendment doesn’t seem to have much of an impact on anything in general.

Amendment 7

“Do you support an amendment to create the Louisiana Unclaimed Property Permanent Trust Fund to preserve the money that remains unclaimed by its owner or owners?”

This amendment proposes to settle an argument between Governor John Bel Edwards and Treasurer John Schroder over access to money sitting in the state’s “unclaimed property” accounts. Historically, the state has used money from the unclaimed accounts to cover certain operating expenses. As long as there is enough coming into the unclaimed account to cover what it is obligated to pay what is owed to individuals, everything seems to work out.

That was before Schroder decided to stop handing the money over. For a few years now, Schroder has been refusing to transfer some $32 million from the unclaimed property fund over to the state general fund. This amendment is an attempt to get Schroder to release this hostage in exchange for tighter control over the fund in the future.

The deal would release the $32 million to the state now but would also create an Unclaimed Property Trust Fund to be managed by the Treasurer. In the future any excess unclaimed property funds can be invested in the stock market at the Treasurer’s discretion. Returns from these investments could then be handed over to the general fund but how much that ends up amounting to is questionable. Certainly it would mean tying up this source of revenue for a few years at least which could make things even more difficult for an already strapped state budget.

Meanwhile, the Treasurer will have a pile of money to play with. Good for him. But less good for anyone that money could have helped in the meantime.

Parish Ballot Proposition

“Shall sports wagering activities and operations be permitted in the parish of (Your Parish Here)?” (Introduced as Act 215 of the 2020 Legislature by Sen. Cameron Henry)

Sports betting would become legal in any parish that passes this resolution if and when the state gets around to promulgating rules and regulations for taxation and so forth. Because such rules are not already available, it’s difficult to say what the direct fiscal impact of this would be for the state or any parish. If you like betting on sports, go ahead and vote yes.