Tax chair at center of special session

The special session has been dominated so far by tax issues, which can only originate in the House of Representatives, which in turn has allowed the lower chamber to set the pace over the past week or so.

To take it a step further, tax policy almost always has to start in the House Ways and Means Committee, which places Chairman Neil Abramson, D-New Orleans, in what is arguably one of the most important positions in the 2016 special se

A New Orleans resident who grew up in Gonzales and attended high school in Baton Rouge, Abramson was an all-state football standout who played in college as well. Now an attorney, Abramson, 48, was editor the Louisiana Law Review and has clerked for federal judges and members of Congress. He’s also one of the few Democrats in the House’s heavily-Republican leadership structure, which is allowing him to hop from one political pond to another.

“We’re all in this together,” he said in a recent interview. “Trusting the magnitude of the shortfalls, I think we all realize that the solution is going to have to be a balance of cuts and revenue.”

Abramson has been overseeing long hearings on tax bills, sometimes into the night, but held off on actual votes until this week, the second week of the special session that must adjourn by March 9.

He said he has been working with House Appropriations Chairman Cameron Henry, R-Metairie, and other legislative leaders to make sure his committee only takes votes when necessary. There’s little interest in passing several small tax bills when fewer might make the difference, or moving legislation that might die on the floor.

“No one wants to take unnecessary votes,” he said.The man with the gavel, however, is concerned that tax policy is not being approached holistically in the special session. Like he has in previous years, you can expect Abramson to bring back one of his perennial bills to address the issue in the regular session.

“I’ll have a bill to hold a constitutional convention,” he said. “We can’t keep working year to year.”

Abramson so far has six bills filed for the special session, with a couple focusing on lifting low-income citizens out of poverty. He wants to modify the Enterprise Zone Program to include a special credit for new employees who were previously on public assistance and increase the Earned Income Tax Credit, in conjunction with adjustments to income tax rates.

He also has HB 53, which would clean two pennies of the state sales tax and create a mechanism to replace the inventory tax with a five-year bridge funded by a half penny that would go into a dedicated fund.

Disagreement over BP moneyAttorney General Jeff Landry told the House Appropriations Committee last week  that there might be a chance that money connected to the BP oil spill meant for the current budget might not make it to Louisiana by the time the fiscal year ends on June 30.

A spokesperson for the Division of Administration, though, said executives from BP have already met with Gov. John Bel Edwards they vowed to pay on day one as soon as the settlement agreement was signed. That’s instead of waiting 90 days, so the payment could arrive in a timely manner if all goes as promised.

Still, it’s yet another spot of uncertainty in the ongoing special session where lawmakers are being asked to resolve a shortfall between $850 million and $940 million for this fiscal year and a budget gap that surpasses $2 billion for the next.

The full Senate has already voted to redirect $200 million from the Deepwater Horizon Economic Damages Settlement, which is the result of the BP oil spill. It can be found in SB 4 by Senate Finance Chairman Eric LaFleur, D-Ville Platte, and is a key element in Gov. John Bel Edwards’ special session plan. Taxes in escrow reach $13 millionIn the wake of the Louisiana Legislature suspending part of a sales tax exemption favored by industry last year, $13 million has been paid in protest and the money is now being held in escrow.

In response to a request from LaPolitics, Revenue Department spokesperson Kizzy Payton said 479 payments have been made under protest since July 2015. Those total payments are averaging about $2.1 million per month.

With the Louisiana Chemical Association appealing a decision on its lawsuit against the Legislature for passing the exemption, the legal proceedings will keep lawmakers from using the money in the current fiscal year. It could be another 12 to 18 months before the matter is resolved, according to some involved.   Ads may target lawmakersThe Committee For a Free Louisiana, which ran ads against lawmakers in December in an effort to elect a conservative speaker, will be mounting a similar campaign against legislators who support increasing the state sales tax.

“We already have the third highest sales tax in the nation,” said consultant Chris Comeaux. “For Democrats to lead the charge on this is a complete betrayal to their base.”Teacher groups uniteLike they did last election cycle, the leaders of Louisiana’s two largest public education unions are joining forces for the special session and sharing resources. The Louisiana Federation of Teachers and the Louisiana Association of Educators are operating as one. Maybe not on paper, but definitely strategically. This is a trend worth keeping an eye on.

“We can accomplish far more together than we can by remaining divided,” said LFT President Steve Monaghan.They Said It“Every drop of beer counts.”—John Williams, executive director of the Beer Industry League of Louisiana, discussing alcohol taxes“Hell will freeze over before LSU doesn’t go in Tiger Stadium.”—Rep. Steve Pylant, R-Winnsboro, on budget cuts

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