BATON ROUGE -- From the looks of it, the legislation was one of those no-brainers, a local bill that lawmakers historically give the nod to out of courtesy and have no need to question. But for some reason, Rep. Jeff Arnold was the only legislator in the 105-member House to vote against creating the "Old Metairie Road Business and Cultural District."
When asked about it last week before a committee meeting, Arnold, D-New Orleans, took a deep breath and smiled. He straightened his Looney Tunes tie, staring down at Daffy and Tweety, before gesturing with his hands.
“I don’t have a problem with Old Metairie,” Arnold said. “It was just a message I was trying to send.”
The message was intended for Rep. John LaBruzzo, R-Metairie, who was busy pacing the hallway outside the committee room. It was his bill that Arnold took a symbolic stand on earlier this month. But in a matter of minutes, LaBruzzo will be presenting another bill that seeks to send a message to Arnold – and his family, as well as other members of the Legislature.
Arnold, along with Rep. Alex Heaton, D-New Orleans, helped kill a bill in February that would have consolidated the seven assessors' offices in New Orleans. On the surface, there’s nothing unusual about the votes. But consider their family connections and things become a bit questionable -- Fifth District Assessor Tom Arnold, the lawmaker’s father, and Seventh District Assessor Henry Heaton, the other’s brother.
That’s why LaBruzzo filed a bill for the ongoing regular session to prohibit lawmakers from voting on legislation that would affect tax assessors they’re related to. It is indeed a very pointed bill and LaBruzzo contends the fallout has been harsh, ranging from political threats to swear-laced attacks.
Last week, when LaBruzzo went into the House and Governmental Affairs Committee to present his bill, Arnold, a member, was waiting with ammo. LaBruzzo, however, knew the cards were stacked against him and voluntarily pulled the bill from consideration, vowing to seek an opinion from the state Ethics Board. Before Arnold could chime in, LaBruzzo was out the door.
Arnold stormed into the hallway looking for a reporter: “I was going to present this during the meeting, but (LaBruzzo) pulled the bill and left.”
He held four sheets of paper in his hands, each explaining a different bill filed by LaBruzzo over the last couple of years. Every single one dealt with medical equipment – LaBruzzo’s profession.
“If he really wanted to change the rules,” Arnold said, referring to the ethics code that prohibits lawmakers from voting on something they stand to economically benefit from, “he should have it apply to everyone.”
More than anything else, the Arnold-LaBruzzo feud is representative of what recent assessor issues have amounted to in the Legislature and elsewhere -- usually emotional, sometimes comical and always confrontational. The 2006 regular session, obviously, is no exception.
The legislation to consolidate the Orleans assessors into one office – like others around the state – is back this session. But it was yanked from the agenda earlier this month in a Senate committee when the votes didn’t add up for passage, even with a personal appearance by the governor.
The Council for a Better Louisiana, a nonprofit policy group, released a criticism following the event, claiming if the concept is abandoned this year, the offices will remain a “symbol of wasteful government that treats taxpayers in that city unfairly and inequitably.”
While high-profile and emotionally-charged, the consolidation issue isn’t the only one on the table for assessors this session. After years of opposing any increase in the homestead exemption, the Louisiana Assessors' Association is prepared to support such a concept, according to Barney “Frog” Altazan, chair of the group’s legislative committee.
The homestead exemption permits homeowners to exclude the first $75,000 of their primary residence from state and all non-municipal local property taxes. Altazan said an increase could hurt local school boards, who derive money from property taxes, but assessors are ready to help out of those in need in the devastated region by allowing more of the property value to exist tax-free.
The stance is just as surprising as the association’s take on the consolidation issue. Altazan said the group is trying to stay neutral, arguing assessors in other parts of the state shouldn’t have a say in New Orleans’ future. If anything, the residents should vote on such a shift, he added.
Maybe the stances are unusual because the association never actually ratified them this year; they are being presented at the sole discretion of the legislative committee. The LAA did meet prior to the session, but they couldn’t get a quorum, Altazan said. Another meeting is scheduled for this week, but he doubts the positions will change greatly.
On the horizon, bubbling under the surface, Altazan said some of the members are eyeing changes made by other states to transition assessors’ posts from elected to appointed. For now, though, it’s not a real threat, and not as relevant as issues like the homestead exemption. The turnaround on that issue is telling, Altazan said, and could indicate that assessors are adapting to a new way of life post-Katrina/Rita, like others around the state.
“Maybe it’s the signs of the times,” Altazan said.