A Taxing Time

by Jeremy Alford

Louisiana's assessors are on the hot seat more than ever in this legislative session.

From the looks of it, the legislation was one of those no-brainer bills lawmakers historically give the nod to out of courtesy and have no need to question. But for some reason, New Orleans Democratic Rep. Jeff Arnold was the only legislator last month 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 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 says. "It was just a message I was trying to send."

The message was intended for Metairie Republican Rep. John LaBruzzo, who was pacing the hallway outside the committee room. In a matter of minutes, LaBruzzo would present another bill to send a message in retaliation to Arnold, his family and other members of the Legislature.

Arnold, along with New Orleans Democratic Rep. Alex Heaton, 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 their votes. But consider their family connections ' Fifth District Assessor Tom Arnold is the lawmaker's father, and Seventh District Assessor Henry Heaton is the other legislator's brother ' and things become a bit questionable.

That's why LaBruzzo filed a bill for the Legislative session to prohibit lawmakers from voting on legislation that would affect tax assessors to whom they're related. It's a very pointed bill ' pointed right at Arnold and Heaton ' and LaBruzzo says the fallout has been harsh, ranging from political threats to expletive-laced attacks.

Last week, when LaBruzzo went into the House and Governmental Affairs Committee to present his bill, Arnold was ready to pounce. 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," he says, "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 says, referring to the ethics code that prohibits lawmakers from voting on issues from which them might benefit economically, "he should have it apply to everyone."

More than anything else, the Arnold-LaBruzzo feud represents the state of assessor issues in the Legislature and elsewhere ' emotional, confrontational and sometimes comical. 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 Gov. Kathleen Blanco. The Council for a Better Louisiana, a nonprofit policy group, blasted the inaction and said 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."

The consolidation issue isn't the only one on the table for assessors this session. The Louisiana Assessors' Association is prepared to support increasing the homestead exemption. The exemption allows homeowners to exclude the first $75,000 in fair market value of their primary residence from parish property taxes ' except in New Orleans. Altazan says an increase in the exemption could hurt local school boards that derive money from property taxes, but assessors want to help homeowners in storm-devastated areas.

The stance surprises come Capitol observers, as does the association's take on the consolidation issue. Altazan says the group is trying to stay neutral on consolidation, arguing assessors in other parts of the state shouldn't meddle with New Orleans' future. If anything, the residents should vote on such a change, he says.

The stances are especially unusual because the association has not ratified either one; instead, they are being presented at the sole discretion of the legislative committee. The LAA met prior to the session, but it couldn't get a quorum, Altazan says. Another meeting is scheduled for this week, but he doubts the positions will dramatically change.

On the horizon, Altazan says some of the members are eyeing changes made by other states to transition assessors' posts from elected to appointed. For now, he says, it's not a real threat, and not as relevant as issues like the homestead exemption. The about-face on that issue is telling, Altazan says, and could indicate that assessors ' like everyone else around the state ' are adapting to a new way of life post-Katrina/Rita.

"Maybe it's the signs of the times," Altazan says.