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Clarity on LA Bond Commission role needed

New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell brought up an issue that deserves a fuller answer for Louisianans.

Last week, a request went to the State Bond Commission to schedule a tax election in New Orleans. It came from the City Council, which passed over Cantrell’s objections a measure increasing property taxes to fund senior services, intending to pass through proceeds to the city’s Council on Aging.

Cantrell has opposed the move because she sees such a dedication as too limiting of policy option. She prefers integration of that service provision with a broader social services agenda that could require a tax increase, but not one separately for that discrete task and directed to an entity outside of city government.

But with the City Council steaming forward, in order to stop the matter Cantrell hit upon a strategy to make the SBC an appellate court. Statute requires that the SBC approve of any local tax request going to a public vote.

And that’s it. Nothing in the Constitution about the SBC and every other of the thousands of words addressing its duties in the laws gives any more substance to that particular function. Presumably, its members can use any decision rule they like in voting to determine whether something hits the ballot.

Accordingly, Cantrell argued that the SBC take into account the extra cost the election would entail as a reason to refuse this. The Council wanted to slot the election in for the first authorized spring date, in 2019 on Mar. 30, while the Cantrell Administration pointed out that on the second spring date, May 4, had another city dedication, of property taxes, up for deciding by the electorate.

Of course, the Council could switch dates to moot that argument, although that would require a revote that would present the slim chance of Cantrell successfully lobbying to torpedo the measure. The additional local expense of $440,000, her administration argued, could be spent on the very function covered by the tax, even as that would provide just a small portion of the envisioned tax’s revenues.

In the end, while that provoked some debate within the SBC, the panel unanimously approved of the request. That seemed to signal agreement with its member state Sen. JP Morrell’s sentiment that the body defer to local governments in deciding the wisdom of asking for such taxes, with the SBC sticking to vetting only whether legal requirements involving the particular item has been met satisfactorily.

However, Cantrell’s argument she couched as not affecting the policy itself but procedure, in that the request spent money inefficiently. And if she wanted to assert that this kind of study fell under the SBC’s purview, she had a case.

Throughout the various statues dealing with the group runs a presumption that the SBC does have a role in preventing unwise expenditures. For example, if debt service for state agencies goes too high, legally it must refuse approval for that entity to borrow more money.

Still, in the few statutes concerning its dealings with local government requests, nothing of this nature appears. Then again, nothing about whether it should behave in a ministerial fashion, act as a policeman over paperwork, or anything else in this policy area appears in the law even though it does these things. For example, when it reviews an election proposal, it presumably checks to see that the request doesn’t breach the 5 percent sales tax ceiling established in R.S. 47:338.54 (with other exceptions granted in statute).

So, this lack of direction seems ripe for legislative intervention. Clear instructions by legislators as to SBC scope and role would reduce potential confusion over what it does and how it may act appropriately. Otherwise, its future activities could result in inefficient use of time and resources or, worse, its straying into areas of policy not intended by lawmakers.

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