Let voters decide tough issues

CONTROVERSIAL BILL — Louisiana legislators have two tough issues to deal with at their current session — centralized sales tax collections and a minimum wage increase.

Louisiana legislators have never hesitated to approve constitutional amendments that let voters decide controversial issues they consider too hot to handle themselves. However, when it is an issue with which they don’t agree and that voters might favor, they conveniently find a way to deny voters that opportunity.

Two proposed constitutional amendments at the current session fit that situation perfectly. House Bill 57 by Rep. Tanner Magee, R-Houma, authorizes the Legislature to provide by law for the centralized collection of all sales and use taxes levied in Louisiana. Senate Bill 155 by Sen. Troy Carter, D-New Orleans, establishes a $9-per-hour state minimum wage.

Magee said his supporters include the National Federation of Independent Businesses, the Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association and the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry (LABI). Businesses have to deal with too many government agencies when they pay sales taxes while 48 states have centralized the collection of their state and local sales taxes.

“Why do we have to be different?” asked Jim Patterson, who follows tax issues for LABI.

The Advocate in a recent editorial asked, “In an election year for the Legislature, will members of the House and Senate want to mess with the special privileges of local governments?”

No, they won’t because many parish governments, school boards and sheriffs have their own sales tax collection offices. However, some have agreed to let one local agency — usually the school board — collect their taxes.

The Louisiana Municipal Association and the Louisiana Police Jury Association were quick to oppose Magee’s proposal, and local agencies are moving quickly to approve resolutions in opposition.

The 12 Republicans and 7 Democrats on the House Ways and Means Committee will hear Magee’s legislation. Republicans generally favor business interests, but going against local officials in an election year is going to be difficult for most of them.

“Why wouldn’t we want a streamlined process?” Magee asked. “Why would we want a Byzantine way of doing things instead of one thing?”

The Advocate in its editorial offered an answer: “Because there are jobs at stake.”

Some local officials said they don’t trust the state, and they can do a better job collecting their own taxes. The odds are they will keep doing it, but Magee said his effort at least gets the issue some coverage and changing the collection system will probably take a few years.

Sen. Carter’s minimum wage bill mirrors what Gov. John Bel Edwards has been trying to do for three years. This year, he decided he would like to pass the decision along to voters.

Edwards, in his opening address to the Legislature, said, “Even if you have in the past not supported a minimum wage for our workers, give the people of this state a right to decide.”

A recent LSU poll showed that 81 percent of those surveyed support a minimum wage of $8.50 per hour.

Robert Hebert, a Baton Rouge economist, in a letter to The Advocate, said polling is not a science and even the best-constructed poll contains selective bias and must be carefully interpreted. Hebert said people should be asked if they favor a higher minimum wage that would raise the price of items purchased by 24 percent.

Somehow, that question seems weighted in the other direction. The reality is more than half the states now have minimum wages that exceed the $7.25-per-hour federal wage, which reached that level in 2009 after three increases that began in 2007.

Carter’s amendment has been sent to the 4 Democrats and 3 Republicans who sit on the Senate Committee on Labor and Industrial Relations. Its odds of getting out of that committee are good and it would head to the full Senate. However, if approved there, it would be sent to the 9 Republicans and 6 Democrats on the House Committee on Labor and Industrial Relations where the issue has died for the past three years.

The voters would only get a chance to vote on these two issues if the proposed constitutional amendments get a two-thirds vote in both the House and Senate. It is a high hurdle to climb.

Like it or not, one of these days local and state officials are going to have to come to terms on establishing some kind of centralized sales tax collection system. It’s not an impossible task and a plan can be devised that protects both their interests.

As for the minimum wage, Congress should have raised it a long time ago. Workers can’t be expected to live on $7.25 per hour any longer.

You can be sure legislators on both sides of these issues aren’t happy that Magee and Carter have put them on the spot. These aren’t proposals they want to fool with during election years. However, they were elected to decide critical issues like these, so they won’t get much sympathy from voters.

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