After several months of feuding with lawmakers over funding for various projects and her administration’s COVID-19 restrictions, New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell has come out against the legislative leadership’s crown jewel on the fall ballot — Constitutional Amendment No. 1 to centralize sales tax collections.
Cantrell’s opposition is an unmissable development in this sleepy election, especially since New Orleans could account for as much as 25 percent of the overall vote in the Nov. 13 primary. Statewide turnout is expected to be low, but a slate of hot local races in New Orleans makes the Big Easy the epicenter of this election cycle.
Beau Tidwell, Cantrell’s communications director, said the mayor views the amendment as a “political solution to a technological problem.” She also has concerns about how lawmakers crafted the amendment, which is essentially a policy skeleton that lawmakers will have to return to Baton Rouge to fill out with legislation at a later date. (If the amendment passes.)
“That’s why leadership’s agreement with local governments was that this wouldn’t go to voters until the statutory enabling legislation was in place,” Tidwell said. “What’s before voters is a blank check: a concept with no rules to follow. Most organizations or businesses would be uncomfortable with a scheme that allowed others to collect and hold revenues, while still being held responsible for accounts payable.”
The proposed amendment was a top priority for not only the legislative leadership, but also the business lobby. The proposal received overwhelming support from legislators as well and the concept itself is often cited — in studies and by policy experts — as one of many ways Louisiana can improve its tax structure.
According to the Public Affairs Research Association, which analyzes proposed changes to our state charter, a vote for Constitutional Amendment No. 1 would “allow a single authority to oversee the collection, electronic filing and policy guidance for state and local sales taxes.” A vote against the amendment would “continue to constitutionally require separate collection, filing and policy oversight of sales taxes by the state and local governments.”
Mayor Cantrell believes a good model for sales tax collections is already in place and that better technology is the path forward. It’s also a better model for local control, according to the mayor, since municipal and parish leaders “have immediate access to their revenues and can see their revenue in real time.”
Until Cantrell made her stance known publicly, the proposed constitutional amendment faced very little organized opposition.
“If this passes, it will pull small businesses out of the dark ages and out of a spiderweb of regulations so they can reach a place where they can be competitive,” said Louisiana Association of Business and Industry President Stephen Waguespack, who’s among those traveling the state to drum up support for the amendment. “It’s the most important thing we can do coming out of this pandemic.”
Waguespack said he was impressed by how the legislative leadership created a bipartisan team to craft the amendment, and was pleased when local government associations jumped on the bandwagon. “There may be a few local officials out there with concerns, but they’re outliers,” Waguespack said. “The coalition is broad and deep.”
If the amendment gains favor with voters, Waguespack said there’s a “healthy desire” amongst supporters to tackle the required statutory language during the 2022 regular session.
Both sides of this issue are already spending money to influence Louisiana voters, which is a difficult task no matter what’s on the ballot. More times than not, there are more voters who participate in a ballot’s top race than in any of the amendments or propositions. That means many voters walk into the booth, vote for candidates only and go home.
Those involved in the discussion over Constitutional Amendment No. 1 are certainly hoping to buck that trend. After all, whether you’re for the sales tax proposal or against it, more participation — especially if generated by a robust discussion with differing viewpoints — is always a positive and welcome development.
Jeremy Alford can be reached at JJA@LaPolitics.com.