State lawmakers discuss key issues at town hall meeting

Lisa Yates @Lisa_editor
State Rep. Eddie Lambert, R-Gonzales, said the governor's proposed plan stands to hurt many small businesses. He was one of the state lawmakers speaking, April 1, at a town hall meeting at Cabela's.

Community members and state lawmakers came together for a town hall meeting to discuss the upcoming Louisiana Legislative session. In total, fewer than 25 people showed up to hear about key issues, including the governor's proposed sales tax increase and restructuring program.

The Ascension Chamber of Commerce hosted the event Monday at Cabela's which featured state Reps. Edward Price, Eddie Lambert and Johnnie Berthelot with attorney Matt Pryor as moderator.

Pryor gave each of the legislators an opportunity to speak on any topic before answering questions from the audience. Although they were unsure of what the final draft would look like, all three legislators said they can't support Jindal's plan to restructure Louisiana's tax code.

State Rep. Berthelot, R-Gonzales, said the governor's budget relies on non-recurring revenue from privatizing the state's charity hospital system and selling property.

"Gov. Jindal is a very, very smart man and I want to be on his side," he said. "But I can't support using one-time money. What are we going to do next year?"

Berthelot said the governor is using the argument that Louisiana needs to revise its tax code for economic development. He said the argument is not appropriate as Louisiana is leading the nation in economic development.

"It's not broke," he said. "If it's not broke, why fix it?"

Berthelot said he received confirmation from Louisiana's Secretary of Economic Development Stephen Moret.

"I got him to admit it's not broke," he said.

State Rep. Lambert, R-Gonzales, said the governor's proposed plan stands to hurt many small businesses which will have to collect taxes for services such as haircuts, accounting and lawn care.

"It's going to hurt a lot of small businesses," he said, adding more people will shop somewhere else rather than pay higher sales taxes.

Lambert said overseeing the collection of these new taxes will require additional personnel which adds up to bigger government.

"The key to improving economic development in the state is improving infrastructure," he said. "We can't afford to underfund roads and higher education."

Price, D-Gonzales, said the state's Legislative Black Caucus has created an alternative tax restructuring plan which does not include the elimination of corporate and franchise income tax.

"Instead of eliminating the personal income tax, it reduces it gradually before eliminating it entirely," he said.

Price said Jindal's plan included a rebate to some of the state's elderly and low-income citizens.

"The state would be creating another entitlement program," he said.

During the Q and A part of the program, Chief Deputy Tony Bacala with the Ascension Parish Sheriff's Office voiced his concerns over the new tax proposal.

"My big concern is for local governments who depend on the money from sales taxes," he said.

He said local governments depend on monies for sales tax and tax renewals to fund vital services. By changing the system, he said voters would be unlikely to fund important tax renewals.

Berthelot agreed.

"It's going to effect two main groups: one, every government retiree, including state police, mayors and teachers who currently do not pay state income tax; and, two, municipalities," he said. "It's going to cripple renewals."

He said the City of Gonzales, the sheriff's department and school board all depend on these renewals to provide services.

The Rev. A.J. Johnson, CEO/Founder of Baton Rouge AIDS Society, quoted alarming statistics saying the state leads the nation in the number of people infected with HIV. He said funding cuts have hurt Louisiana's HIV fight.

"What do you think the plan should be for our parish?" he asked.

Price said the cuts need to stop.

"We can't cut our way out of this," he said. "The only answer is to get additional dollars."

Berthelot said he believed the state could find the money to fund this program.

"If in a $25 billion budget we can't find $500,000 for AIDS, we've got to change our priorities," he said. "The problem is we're funding too many programs now that aren't working."