By John Maginnis
Given the steep decrease in telephone land lines and the explosion in cell phones, the legislative bill to adjust the tax to pay for telecommunications services for the deaf seemed fair and reasonable.
The bill before the House early in the session decreased the 5-cents-per-month tax on land lines to 2 cents and expanded it to cover wireless lines, which are currently untaxed. The penny ante tax swap would restore the Telecommunications for the Deaf Fund, which had fallen by half in recent years, to its 2005 level. But because fractions of cents can’t go on phone bills, the 2-cent levy would result in the deaf fund receiving about a half million dollars extra.
That overage, however, was a problem for the man in charge of tax policy in Louisiana. Grover Norquist would not hear of it. Norquist is the president of Americans for Tax Reform in Washington, D.C., and creator of the pledge signed by many American politicians to oppose all net tax increases. Certainly, he wasn’t following the debate at the time, but staff members for his ally, Gov. Bobby Jindal, sent word to legislators that a vote for House Bill 238 would be scored by ATR as a tax increase and, thus, a violation of the pledge.
The House passed the bill overwhelmingly anyway. Of the 16 representatives who have signed the pledge, six voted for the bill, five were against it and five were absent. (Curiously, four of the five absent voted on the previous bill, but, apparently, urgent business called them from the chamber before the vote on the phone tax. Score that as profiles in courage.)
The next week Jindal, who also has signed Norquist’s pledge, said he would veto the bill in its current form, but that it need not come to that. He offered to the author, Rep. Patrick Williams, D-Shreveport, to replace the money from the tax bill with another revenue source.
Williams was hesitant to accept. “It’s a matter of trust,” he said later, for he and his colleagues have seen administration bills that sweep clean funds dedicated to other purposes because it lacked the general tax revenue to balance the budget.
Besides, why should people who have only land lines, such as many elderly, pay five cents a month, while the greater mass of cell phone users, including those jabbering in the mall and texting while driving, get off scot free? It is an elegant solution for us all to put up our two cents to aid those who struggle to hear the daily sounds of life, including our inane cell phone conversations, that we take for granted.
Last week, hearing impaired citizens packed a Senate committee room, following along through interpreters, to support HB 238. Senators learned that the $1.9 million to be raised would supply 70 percent of the funding for the Louisiana Commission for the Deaf, which helps pay for interpreter services, hearing aids and other accessibility tools for the deaf, the deaf and blind and the speech impaired with low incomes.
Louisiana leads the nation in the percentage of deaf and blind residents because of the high number of Acadian descendants with Usher syndrome.
Despite that Williams, outside the meeting, said an agreement had been reached to replace the revenue from another fund, committee members went ahead and sent his bill to the Senate floor, the last stop before the governor’s desk.
If senators were of a mind to, they would pass the bill and dare Jindal to veto it. That would make him look clueless and hard-hearted, not just here but in Iowa and New Hampshire too, where future presidential primary voters might not know of or care about his offer of alternative funding.
The whole 2-cent imbroglio just points up the folly of signing pledges written and interpreted by others. If you want to promise not to raise taxes, put it on your push cards and on your website, wear a sandwich board and shout it in the public square. But don’t go sign a pledge held by a political operative in Washington, who makes up the rules of what does or does not constitute a tax or a net increase.
As interesting as it would be for HB 238 to be put before Jindal, it is more likely that his alternative funding solution will be agreed to amicably among senators, massaged along by the master deal maker, Senate President John Alario. After all, he has skin in the game, having signed Grover’s pledge himself.