DSA New OrleansFall 2022

Voter Guide

As is the case nearly every fall election cycle, Louisiana voters will enjoy the lofty opportunity to add to the 203 amendments that currently grace the state constitution. These are all bills that require a ⅔ majority of each legislative house to pass before then going on to the voters. Because the state constitution sets this high bar for passage of certain kinds of fiscal and taxation matters, an unusually large amount of what may seem like mundane business ends up going to statewide referendum. On the one hand, it crowds the ballot with multiple complex propositions and gives voters extra homework every year. On the other hand, hooray for direct democracy, right? Right?

Other organizations have made their own analysis of these ballot measures, including the Louisiana Budget Project, Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana, and the Party for Socialism & Liberation. Here’s our best attempt at understanding the consequences of passing/failing each proposal.

Proposed Amendment No. 1: Increase Maximum Amount Invested in Equities for Certain State Funds Amendment

This Amendment (Act No. 130 by Rep. Jerome “Zee” Zeringue of the 2021 Regular Session) would empower the State Treasurer to invest a much larger percentage (up to 65%) of the funds available to seven state managed trust funds into the stock market than is currently allowed by law. By far, the largest of these are the Louisiana Education Quality Trust Fund (LEQTF) and the Millennium Trust. The LEQTF supports programs controlled by the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) and the Board of Regents. The Millennium Trust originated with the 1999 landmark multi-state legal settlement with the tobacco companies and funds various health and education programs. The other trusts affected are the Artificial Reef Development Fund, the Lifetime License Endowment Trust Fund, the Rockefeller Wildlife Refuge Trust and Protection Fund, the Russell Sage or Marsh Island Refuge Fund, and the Medicaid Trust Fund for the Elderly.

Even under ordinary circumstances, it’s best to maintain public funds in the safest and most stable investments; bonds, CDs, etc. that guarantee their sustainability over the long haul. As it happens now, higher interest rates and uncertain stock prices caused by the Federal Reserve’s “inflation fighting” strategy make these safer sorts of investments even more attractive.

But prudent stewardship of public investment just isn’t very fun for Rep. Zeringue or Treasurer John Schroder. They’d much prefer the discretion to let these funds ride on the stock market casino. Schroder’s affinity for turning state funds into slush funds was obvious enough in 2020 when Republicans carved out $300 million in COVID relief for him to pass around to “small businesses” with minimal oversight. And, of course, as next year’s statewide elections develop, it’s likely Schroder and other probable Gubernatorial candidates will continue to use their fiscal discretion to perform nonsensical political stunts. Why put even more public money at risk for them to play such games with?

Proposed Amendment No. 2: Property Tax Exemptions for Certain Disabled Veterans and Spouses Amendment

This amendment (Act No. 172 by Rep. Beau Beaullieu of the 2022 Regular Session) is a slight revision to the current property tax allowances extended to disabled veterans and their spouses. Current law allows veterans who can show “100% service-connected disability” or “100% unemployability” to claim double the standard $75,000 state homestead exemption. The current law is somewhat limited because it is also contingent on parish level approval by local voters. This amendment would do away with the local approval step and also extend a $120,000 exemption to veterans who meet a somewhat lower eligibility threshold. All told, it’s not a staggering change in current practice.

Proposed Amendment No. 3: Louisiana Classified Civil Service Employee Public Support of Family Members' Campaigns Amendment

Classified civil servants are prohibited from publicly supporting electoral campaigns. This amendment was sponsored by 11 state representatives, mostly Republicans. Voting yes for this amendment would “allow classified civil service employees in Louisiana to publicly support (by appearing in campaign advertisements, photographs, or attending campaign events) the election campaigns of individuals in their immediate family when off duty.” This exemption would not apply to a registrar of voters or Secretary of State officials. Voting no would continue the prohibition of public support for these employees. By including family members in the exemption, this would help to insulate the growing apparatus of electoral organizations that include elected legacies. Voting no for this amendment has been endorsed by UTNO.

Proposed Amendment No. 4: Waiving Water Charges Amendment

The Sewerage and Water Board, with the full backing of Mayor Cantrell, declared its intention to raise water rates between 3% and 6%. The announcement was only the latest outrage in a long string of infrastructure failures and billing SNAFUs that the failing utility has inflicted on residents. Cantrell spent much of her first year in office threatening to shut off water service to 17,000 residents she insisted were deadbeats. The next year, she cut a deal with the tourism agencies that she claimed would secure a “fair share” of hotel tax revenues to suit S&WB’s needs. And yet here she is again in 2022 threatening to force residents to bear the cost of a still crumbling water system and its still exasperatingly inaccurate billing.

What does this amendment (Act No. 155 by Rep. Jeremy LaCombe of the 2021 Regular Session) have to do with any of that? It won’t directly relieve S&WB ratepayers of burdensome mismanagement, but it does remove one legal obstacle to remuneration. The constitution currently has language that might prohibit a local government from rebating or reducing charges caused by infrastructure failures like, say, a broken water main or an exploded turbine. This amendment gives local governments the flexibility to be nicer to ratepayers under such circumstances.

Whether or not our current local officials would be inclined to take advantage of such flexibility is another matter altogether.

Proposed Amendment No. 5: Adjustment of Ad Valorem Tax Rates Amendment

Local governments all over Louisiana fund numerous operations via property tax millages. A millage is a rate set by law at which a governing body is authorized to collect taxes on the assessed value of properties within its jurisdiction. Millages are approved by voters for a specific number of years. Typically a millage can run anywhere from 10 to 30 years. Property values, though, are reassessed every four years. This means that property values can rise during the life of a millage which might cause overall tax collection to increase even as the rate remains the same. However, the law states that, as reassessments happen, millages must be “rolled back” to whatever rate maintains revenues at the previous year’s level in order to ensure that this increase is not automatic. Taxing bodies who wish to collect the windfall still may act to “roll forward” their millage rate up to whatever rate they are authorized to collect. But they have to vote to do this by a two-thirds vote and, of course, the whole process begins again with the next 4 year reassessment.

Amendment 5 (Act No. 133 by Sen. Gary Smith of the 2021 Regular Session) would make a “roll forward” effective beyond the 4 year mark. In other words, a taxing body could vote to keep its rate at the maximum right on through to the expiration of the millage. It’s not clear what the effect of this change would be for the average person. The budgetary decisions of each taxing body would likely depend on the culture of each agency. Voters will still be able to choose whether or not to renew individual millages upon their expirations.

Proposed Amendment No. 6: Louisiana Limit on Assessed Value Increase of Reappraised Property in Orleans Parish Amendment

Housing costs in New Orleans continue to skyrocket. Renters are continually squeezed by the conversion of neighborhoods to dormitories serving privileged private universities uptown and boutique resort properties serving the extractive tourism industry. Meanwhile, the Times-Picayune reports that, over the past year, the average cost of the monthly note on a new mortgage has increased by a whopping 72%. The trouble seems to come from several directions. As the climate crisis intensifies, insurers are abandoning Louisiana or jacking up rates. Sewerage and Water Board and Entergy are doing the same with utility bills.

Into this maelstrom steps State Rep. Matthew Willard (D, New Orleans) with a plan to somewhat mitigate the effects of gentrification on some current homeowners by limiting the speed at which their property tax bills can increase. Amendment 6 is an attempt to curb major increases in property tax assessments in Orleans Parish for those with a homestead exemption (people who own & live on a property). It is estimated from the Assessor's office that approximately 7,000 properties had an increase over 10%. This amendment would limit the increase in tax liability resulting from the quadrennial reassessment for any Orleans Parish homeowner to a maximum of 10% in one year. However, if the increase in assessments does happen to exceed 10%, the homeowner will still, eventually be liable for the full amount phased in over a few years. This only limits the amount that a tax bill can jump in any one year.

It’s a minimal and temporary form of relief that could help an estimated 7,000 plus Orleans Parish homeowners. But New Orleans’s housing crisis will need more attention than just this. Working class homeowners were hit particularly hard by these massive increases and this amendment seeks to add some level of protection to avoid it in the future. Voting yes will mean residents with a homestead exemption will have their property tax note increase no more than 10% of the previous year’s assessment, while voting no will mean there is no cap to the increase that can be levied to someone with a homestead exemption. Passing this amendment will have the effect of potentially reducing property taxes collected, but it should be noted that the plurality of taxes collected in Orleans Parish are from sales tax. Voting yes for this amendment has been endorsed by UTNO.

Proposed Amendment No. 7: Louisiana Remove Involuntary Servitude as Punishment for a Crime from Constitution Amendment

The US Constitution’s 13th Amendment has an infamous clause to allow slavery or involuntary servitude as punishment of a crime. The Louisiana constitution has similar language that “Slavery and involuntary servitude are prohibited, except in the latter case as punishment for crime.” This amendment removes the exception, but adds an additional line to say this prohibition “does not apply to the otherwise lawful administration of criminal justice.” That new language, rewritten after the bill was introduced, has tripped up many, including the original author of this amendment, who is now arguing that the ballot measure doesn’t do what it says — that voting yes for this amendment doesn’t just strike the exception, but instead potentially carves out a new exception. For many, it’s unclear if the language will change anything at all, making support for the amendment more symbolic than anything. Three states (Colorado, Utah, and Nebraska) have already passed similar amendments to remove this carveout, and four other states (Alabama, Oregon, Tennessee, and Vermont) have similar amendments up for a vote this year as well. Decarcerate Louisiana, who have been some of the original proponents of the Louisiana amendment, have remained committed to supporting the measure, even in its current form. Either way, the material outcome of this amendment for Louisiana’s incarcerated people is not immediately clear.

Proposed Amendment No. 8: Remove Special Assessment Property Tax Annual Income Recertification for Permanently Disabled Homeowners Amendment

Louisiana currently offers a “tax freeze” on property tax assessments for people with permanent disabilities and less than $100,000 in annual income. Recipients of the tax freeze are required to recertify their income with their assessor’s office every year in order to maintain eligibility. This amendment (Act No. 171 by Rep. Matthew Willard of the 2022 Regular Session) reckons that permanently disabled persons shouldn’t be required to meet an annual certification for a benefit they should be entitled to, so it removes that requirement.