A measure that would impose a fee of 2 cents per month on cell phones to assist the hearing impaired seemed likely to sail through the Louisiana House Tuesday afternoon. After all, it would cost each cell phone user less than a quarter for a year.
But aides to Gov. Bobby Jindal sent word to normally loyal Republicans to oppose the bill because they counted it as a tax increase. The administration also sent word to the bill’s sponsor, state Rep. Patrick Williams, D-Shreveport, to withdraw it. He refused.
The measure, House Bill 238, would increase the state’s $24.7 billion budget by $1 million.
More than two-thirds of the House disregarded the Jindal administration and approved the measure, 73-16.
House members noted afterward that House Speaker Chuck Kleckley, R-Lake Charles, and House Ways and Means Chairman Joel Robideaux, R-Lafayette, were among those who supported the measure. Until two weeks ago, Kleckley and Robideaux, to a lesser extent, had been reliable supporters of Jindal.
“There’s no question that it was an important statement that the speaker made with that vote about doing the right thing rather than how it’s going to be scored by some outside group,” Robideaux said in an interview Wednesday.
Jindal’s administration warned lawmakers that Americans for Tax Reform, a Washington, D.C.-based group headed by Grover Norquist, would flag it as a tax increase, lawmakers said.
Kleckley was not available for comment Wednesday because he was presiding over the House.
Tuesday’s vote attracted little attention outside of the House, but it could prove ominous for Jindal. The governor anointed Kleckley as the speaker in late 2011 and gained a faithful supporter until April 3, when Kleckley for the first time showed his independence from the governor by opposing Jindal’s complicated tax swap. House members privately congratulated Kleckley, believing he had swung too far in favor of serving Jindal’s agenda at the expense of the House’s.
Under current law, the state imposes a 5 cent per month tax on all land lines, and the money goes to the state’s Telecommunications for the Deaf Fund. The money goes for “accessibility and technology for the deaf, hard of hearing or speech impaired,” according to bill analysis.
In an interview Wednesday, Williams said that money for the fund has declined because fewer people have home phones.
The bill would reduce the 5-cent land-line tax to 2 cents per month and also extend that 2-cent tax to cell phones, pagers and long-distance phone lines. That will result in a net $1 million increase in revenue for the state.
Williams said he ignored a request from the Jindal administration to pull it.
“I’m here to serve the people,” Williams said. “This is a bill that services people in need.”
Williams and state Rep. Harold Ritchie, D-Franklinton, who lobbied his colleagues to support the measure, said Taylor Teepell, the governor’s liaison with legislators, asked them to defeat the measure, offering the warning about Americans for Tax Reform.
Williams and others said lawmakers got texts from Teepell afterward asking them if they realized they had voted for a tax.
“The governor is more concerned about how you’re perceived than serving the interests of the people,” Williams said.
State Rep. Walt Leger, D-New Orleans, who is the speaker pro tempore, said he advised Williams to have the Senate take up the bill immediately to give the Legislature time to try to override a Jindal veto. An override would require 70 votes in the 105-member House and 26 in the 39-member Senate.*
Tuesday’s events were reminiscent of a 2011 episode where Jindal vetoed a 4-cent per pack renewal of a cigarette tax that the Legislature approved. The Legislature found a way to approve the tax in a way that Jindal couldn’t veto.
“According to the Legislative Fiscal Office, the bill is not revenue neutral,” Jindal spokesman Sean Lansing wrote in an email to The Lens. “We support the goal of the bill, but we think it can be accomplished without a tax increase.”*
The governor prides himself on not having supported a single tax increase.
*The original story has been updated with comment from Jindal’s office.
*Correction: This story originally misstated how many votes are required for a veto override in the Senate. (April 18, 2013)