Measures supported by Gov. Bobby Jindal that would phase out the state personal income tax without determining how to make up for the billions in lost revenue are facing unexpectedly strong opposition from members of the House Ways and Means Committee.
“Considering the state of the existing budget deficit and the challenges in health care and higher education, I am not inclined to support the repeal of the income tax or any other state tax until I hear a plan on how that revenue would be replaced,” said state Rep. Chris Broadwater, R-Hammond, a Ways and Means member who has been a reliable Jindal supporter.
Rep. Joel Robideaux, R-Lafayette, who chairs the committee, also said he could not support such a measure.
“We have to find a mechanism to pay for it,” Robideaux said.
The Ways and Means Committee has 19 members. Nine of the 10 members interviewed Friday voiced opposition to such a measure.
Ways and Means will hear testimony and vote on the income tax phase-out and several other income tax measures starting Monday — which by ironic coincidence is April 15, the day federal income taxes are due nationwide.
The further irony is that Jindal, who likes to describe himself as a fiscal conservative, now finds himself associated with the kind of deficit-expanding fiscal policies most conservatives — including those on Ways and Means — deplore.
On Monday, in the face of overwhelming public and legislative opposition, Jindal dropped his proposal to eliminate personal and corporate income taxes as well as corporate franchise fees and make up for the lost revenues primarily by raising sales taxes even higher.
On Thursday, abandoning a commitment to balance tax cuts with tax hikes in a revenue-neutral manner, Jindal said he would support a measure to repeal the personal income tax over 10 years — even one that didn’t identify alternative sources of revenue to pay for the cut.
“We’re not putting up any barriers to these bills,” Jindal said. “Our point is we want to get rid of the income tax. We’re open to talking with any legislator that’s interested in doing that and working with any legislator that’s interested in doing that and any outside group that’s interested in getting that done.”
Three measures before Ways and Means on Monday and Tuesday would eliminate personal income taxes over 10 years.
A measure by state Rep. Hunter Greene, R-Baton Rouge (House Bill 271), would phase out the personal income tax over a decade, beginning in 2014. The measure would cost $23.7 billion over the 10 years, according to the Legislative Fiscal Office.
A measure by state Rep. Alan Seabaugh, R-Shreveport (House Bill 505), would phase out the personal income tax over a decade beginning in 2016, as would a measure by Rep. Barry Ivey, R-Central (House Bill 507).
“Our bills are not revenue-neutral, but the revenue can be made up in other ways,” Seabaugh said. “We’d have 2 ½ years to work things out. It would force people to make hard choices that they’ve been reluctant to make.”
Seabaugh said that if the committee requires that the measures be revenue neutral, “then none of them can pass. There’s a chance that all might die in committee.”
Of the 10 Ways and Means members interviewed Friday, only state Rep. Jeff Thompson, R-Bossier City, said he would support the unfunded phase out “as a way to shrink government.” Thompson called for including a trigger that would suspend the phase-out if the economy declined.
Other legislators said they could not foresee supporting a measure that would eliminate personal incomes without identifying how to pay for it:
- State Rep. Patrick Williams, D-Shreveport, the Ways and Means vice chairman
- State Rep. Wesley Bishop, D-New Orleans
- State Rep. Major Thibaut, D-New Roads
- State Rep. Robert Johnson, D-Marksville
- State Rep. Harold Ritchie, D-Franklinton
- State Rep. Regina Barrow, D-Baton Rouge
- State Rep. Julie Stokes, R-Kenner
“How are we going to replace the lost revenue?” asked Williams, calling such plans “irresponsible.”
Stokes said she is writing an alternative measure that would lower income taxes by raising sales taxes and eliminating tax exemptions — essentially a scaled-back version of what Jindal had pushed.
Of the 10 Ways and Means members interviewed Friday, none said they had been called by Speaker Chuck Kleckley, R-Lake Charles, or Jindal administration officials asking them to support the income tax phase-out. Given the strong opposition voiced Friday, Jindal and Kleckley would face a difficult lobbying task if they hope to keep the phase-out measure alive. Jindal is weakened politically following release last week of a Southern Media & Opinion Research poll which showed that his favorable rating had plummeted from 61 percent a year ago to 38 percent.
Broadwater praised a column published Friday by Dan Juneau, who heads the Louisiana Association of Business & Industry, the state’s most powerful business group.
“The time to address tax reform is when we have a budget surplus or we have a stable budget,” Broadwater said. “Our top priority ought to be sorting out the budget problem. I represent my district, and Southeastern [Louisiana University] has seen considerable budget cuts. They’re a huge economic driver in my area.”
Besides LABI, other powerful voices have opposed the 10-year income tax phase-out during the past two days, including the Council for a Better Louisiana, an advocacy group based in Baton Rouge; the Public Affairs Research Council, a think tank based in Baton Rouge; and three prominent Louisiana economists.
Phasing out the state personal income tax requires at least 53 votes in the 105-member House, a simple majority.
Ways and Means also will vote on several other major tax measures beginning Monday that would reduce income taxes while raising other taxes. These measures would need at least 70 votes on the House floor — a two-thirds majority — because they contain tax increases.
Rep. Seabaugh said he hopes Ways and Means will support all of the major tax bills and let the full House settle the issue.
State Rep. Katrina Jackson, D-Monroe, is sponsoring a package of measures backed by the Legislative Black Caucus (House Bills 626, 609, 623 and 536) that retains the income tax, eliminates a major corporate tax deduction and raises cigarette taxes by 33 cents per pack. It would result in a net $70 million tax increase that would produce an additional $42 million in federal funds, all to fund higher spending on health care.
Jackson, who is not on Ways and Means, said she also opposes the phase-out and would not ask any members of Ways and Means to support the phase-out in return for getting her measure out of the committee.
“That negotiation would be to the detriment of the people of Louisiana,” Jackson said.
State Rep. Kirk Talbot, R-River Ridge, has a tax-swap plan that would reduce personal income taxes, expand the state sales tax to some currently untaxed services (as Jindal proposed) but keep the state sales tax at 4 percent. (Jindal proposed raising it to 6.25 percent.)
Under Talbot’s plan (House Bill 586), the state income tax would drop to a flat rate of 1.9 percent and, as under current law, would exempt the first $12,500 of income.
Ritchie is proposing a measure (House Bill 417) that would raise cigarette taxes from 36 cents per pack to $1.41.
Editor’s note: This article has been updated to reflect additional reporting since it was first published. Outdated information has been struck through.