State lawmakers discuss session at Bossier Chamber Legislative Summit

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Louisiana lawmakers and business owners gathered in Bossier City today to autopsy the 2015 state legislative session that ended last week.

The Bossier Chamber of Commerce hosted its Legislative Summit Thursday afternoon at the Hilton Garden Inn in Bossier City.

In the end, the legislature passed a package of tax bills that will raise an estimate of more than $700 million to help shore up a $1.6 billion budget shortfall, and in the process, changed many business tax credit incentives.

Keynote speaker Stephen Waguespack, president of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, was critical of the state’s new budget and how new tax policies will impact businesses of all sizes.

“Everyone went to Baton Rouge looking for ways to stabilize the budget, to protect healthcare and higher education, but, the only way lawmakers chose to do so was to put taxes on businesses…We had to be smart how we reduce government. We didn’t do that in this budget.”

The budget is filled with one-year fixes and many of the tax measures will end after one to three years.

“Next year, we’re going to have all the same problems. We did a really bad job at fixing things for the future,” added State Rep. Alan Seabaugh, R-Shreveport.

These measures include House Concurrent Resolution 8, which eliminated 1 cent of the 4-cent sales and use tax break that businesses get on their utility bills. This would raise $103 million for next year only. Six measures will raise money by taking away business tax breaks for the next three years are: House Bill 629 — reduces certain business tax credits by 28 percent; House Bill 624 — reduces certain business tax exclusions and deductions by 20 percent; House Bill 635 — reduces certain business tax rebates by 20 percent; House Bill 829 — shaves the film tax credit; House Bill 402  — reduces tax breaks for taxes paid in other states; House Bill 218 — limits certain business tax breaks.

Waguespack took issue with how some presented the budget solution, saying businesses took the brunt of the blame for budget issues.

“It was as if business got us into this situation and now business is going to have to get us out of it,” he said.

Waguespack said it is hard to know what happened when it comes to the tax bills, “We’ll find out in the days and weeks to come.”

The legislators present at the summit were all in agreement that they made the best of a bad situation — having to find $1.6 billion in 60 days, all without raising taxes for threat of veto by Gov. Bobby Jindal.

Sen. Sherri Buffington discusses the budget during the Bossier Chamber of Commerce's Legislative Summit at the Hilton Garden Inn in Bossier City Thursday.
Sen. Sherri Buffington discusses the budget during the Bossier Chamber of Commerce’s Legislative Summit at the Hilton Garden Inn in Bossier City Thursday.

Sen. Sherri Buffington, R-Shreveport, said ,”There were no good options.” While Rep. Roy Burrell, D-Shreveport, noted “The devil is in the details. It’s there in the budget…We all have to share this pain — both the public and private sectors.”

“I fault leadership for the untenable position we were put in,” said Rep. Richie Buford, R-Stonewall.

Freshman Rep. Mike Johnson, who filled Jeff Thompson’s seat, said he left the session recognizing  the need for structural reform.

“It’s time to change how we do business. Desperate times call for desperate measures.”

Sebaugh noted that their hand was forced in some ways by the limited time of this session, explaining, ”We were going to a veto session if we didn’t pass a really stupid piece of legislation (SAVE bill). The best thing I can say about SAVE is it doesn’t hurt anybody.”

The SAVE, Student Assessment for a Valuable Education, program allowed the budget to remain revenue neutral and key revenue bills that prevent cuts to higher education and health care avoided vetoes by Gov. Jindal.

SAVE was created to hold up to $350 million in revenue that lawmakers approved this year. The provision allows for an assessment to be levied against all of Louisiana’s university and college students, on average $1,600 per student but no more than $2,100. The students would never pay the assessment, but a corresponding tax credit would be transferred to the Board of Regents, a tax-exempt institution. The Board of Regents would then distribute the money in the SAVE fund to the state’s higher education institutions.

However, Seabaugh pointed out that some good was accomplished in Baton Rouge.

”In a lot of ways, we did things we hadn’t done in my five years down there. There were no cuts to higher education, we fully funded our medical school.”

And Seabaugh carried the 1.5 percent hotel/motel tax increase on visitors. The tax would raise money to improve the Shreveport Regional Airport, as well as add funds to the Shreveport-Bossier Sports Commission and Independence Bowl. The measure, which passed in Caddo but failed in Bossier during last fall’s election, will once again be up for public vote this October.

“This is necessary for infrastructure needs, especially for the airport. This is critical for our area.”

Henry Burns, R-Haughton, discussed his bills, which included the establishment of

the “Governor’s Veterans Friendly Campus Designation” for colleges that implements a list of support measures for student veterans. He also noted House Bill 420, which designates a portion of Louisiana Highway 72 in Bossier Parish as “Private First Class Joshua C. Burrows Drive” and a portion of U.S. Highway 80 in Bossier Parish as “Sergeant Craig Nelson Memorial Highway.”