The Next Move

by Jeremy Alford

If the state survives the rest of this hurricane season and revenues continue at the current clip, will business and industry go on the offensive for further tax reform?

It was a policy milestone for business and industry in 2004 when the state Legislature approved a long-range tax phase-out on corporate debt and manufacturing equipment. The move coincided with Gov. Kathleen Blanco and other state officials pushing their "Open for Business" mantra, which took on a whole new significance following Katrina and Rita.

During last November's hurricane-recovery session, special interests were also able to force through a small tax cut on electricity and natural gas, but the momentum came to a noticeable halt in this year's regular session when lawmakers turned their attention to other matters having little or nothing to do with economic growth.

But the political landscape is shifting again, and the next several months could be ripe with opportunities. Budget surpluses for 2006 and 2007 could potentially top $1 billion, and revenue forecasts remain somewhat bolstered by oil prices and recovery spending. To top it off, 2007 will be an election year complemented by term limits, which could make for a generous Legislature.

Business advocates are already eyeing the situation and crafting a strategy that focuses on furthering tax reforms. Still, the rosy fiscal situation could flip at any moment; state Treasurer John Kennedy has repeatedly warned that the "recovery bubble" will eventually burst, leaving Louisiana in a less-than-desirable financial position.

Special interest groups realize the likelihood of that scenario, but they argue their respective memberships will be there to support the economy when the fizzle starts ' and policy makers should make every effort to strengthen business and industry now.

Donna Landry, chairwoman of the Greater Lafayette Chamber of Commerce, says the push for tax reform could be successful next year if business interests take a united front and state revenues don't take a dramatic fall. She also says business leaders need to consider progressive issues for regional development.

"Our focus in recent months has been on transportation and infrastructure issues," Landry says. "The current model for financing our priorities is under-funded, and we need to make sure we're getting our fair share so we can manage our population and traffic growth."

Specifically, the chamber is interested in finding alternative funding methods for the Lafayette Metropolitan Expressway project, a transportation plan expected to cost upwards of $740 million, depending on the route selected. Tolls and tax collections have been explored in the past ' City-Parish President Joey Durel's proposed sales tax for road infrastructure is on the November ballot ' but Landry says more opportunities must be pursued.

Dan Juneau, president of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, one of the largest lobbies in the state, says readdressing the current phase-out of business taxes on equipment and debt are among his groups' top priorities for next year. "It would be nice if those taxes were accelerated, or even eliminated outright, but largely we just need to make sure they eventually come off the books," he says.

The state sales tax on manufacturing equipment has been evaporating slowly over the past two years, with 35 percent coming off in July. More will be deducted each year until 2010, when all of the tax will be eliminated. Even though it is in the process of being abolished, the tax still places Louisiana at a disadvantage against other southern states that don't apply anything, according to Juneau.

R. Charles Hodson Jr., state director of the National Federal of Independent Business, a nonprofit advocacy group with 6,000 members statewide, is pushing an effort to apply the equipment tax break to small businesses that rely on desktop computers and other common machinery. Doing so would send a symbolic message to an underrepresented constituency, argues Hodson.

"It's a fairly narrow band of equipment that can be used, and unless you're a huge manufacturer, you're really not getting any benefit," Hodson says. "I understand we need to be looking for that silver bullet, like landing a Mercedes plant, but let's not forget about our small businesses and those that are already here."

The groups being led by Juneau and Hodson are also considering asking lawmakers to accelerate the phase-out of the state's tax on corporate debt. The mechanism, which collects upwards of $120 million annually for the state, is being eliminated over a seven-year schedule beginning this year.

Dan S. Borné, president of the Louisiana Chemical Association, says his membership's No. 1 issue for the coming year is eliminating the remaining 3.3 percent sales tax on the use of natural gas and electricity, the only levy of its kind in the nation. It was originally reduced from 3.8 percent during last November's special session, but Borné says the job needs to be finished in 2007. "That impacts every business in the state that receives a utility bill," he says. "It also protects the petrochemical industry because we buy so much natural gas to keep generating power and electricity. We use natural gas the way a bakery shop uses flour, and that tax is eventually passed on to consumers."

Aside from the state's fiscal concerns, the biggest unknown next year will be how term limits ' during an election year ' will play out with all these issues. Borné says the lure of early retirement, coupled with the need to get re-elected, might make for a perfect situation for business and industry.

"It's an election year like none other and the first of its kind," Borné says. "We'll be cruising uncharted waters because there's no telling what an election year layered with term limits will have on public policy issues and whether they gain traction. But I don't think it'll be a year where lawmakers are looking to tax anybody, so we're safe from that for now."