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Maybe downhill from here for radical BR group

Baton Rouge policy-makers’ dalliance with the radical leftist interest group Together Baton Rouge has backfired, putting the city-parish and entity on the defensive.

TBR, founded nearly a decade ago, got on its legs courtesy of the Industrial Areas Foundation. The IAF, founded by Saul Alinksy who stridently opposed “dogma” and promoted situational ethics, despite that cleverly markets itself as “faith-based” and pitches itself to religious entities. TBR, which remains affiliated with IAF, adopted this model and as a result the majority of its members, which it assesses annual dues, are religious-based organizations.

But TBR hews to a particularly intolerant model of belief, most closely matching an imagined social Christian gospel that takes precedence over the teachings of the actual Gospels. In essence, it conceives the state as a theocratic instrument to impose its peculiar religious beliefs. This mixing of religion and state echoes that promoted in Islam except that TBR’s creed argues for greater government control over people’s lives, primarily in the taking of what people own and redistributing it, rather than Islam’s having government enforce a code of moral behavior based upon its tenets.

That emphasis has attracted several left-wing organizations as members. This fealty to redistributionist politics has found its most prominent expression in a battle over the application state’s Industrial Tax Exemption Program, with that door opened by Louisiana’s highest-ranked political official who largely sympathizes with the group’s ideology, Democrat Gov. John Bel Edwards.

Edwards issued an executive order saying he would sign ITEP agreements, which waive property taxes for certain investments, only with the approval of some local taxing bodies. After an iteration or two, essentially this gave these governments a veto power over exempting their property taxes collected.

ITEP makes up part of Louisiana’s Rube Goldberg-like property tax regime, but, as cumbersome and counterintuitive as it may seem, it does have the effect of alleviating the huge property tax burden paid by corporations in the state. Failure to exempt, or even the possibility that could happen, decisively changes the calculus to become a significant disincentive to invest.

All this came to a head recently when one of the two major leviers of property taxes in East Baton Rouge Parish, the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board, rejected a couple of large breaks for ExxonMobil. TBR and other interests brought much pressure to bear to take that position, and, facing continued deficit spending and dwindling reserves, a slim Board majority decided to gut the golden goose that pays the most property taxes to a local government of any in the state.

While TBR celebrated publicly the event, the metropolitan government went into crisis mode after the company announced withdrawal of the pending requests to its Metro Council. Democrat Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome organized a pep rally to praise the company’s presence in the area, perhaps sensing what would come. She alleged Baton Rouge was “open for business,” despite the strikingly anti-competitive ITEP standards issued by the Metro Council and acted upon by the School Board that demonstrated the opposite.

And the other shoe hit the floor today for the city-parish, when ExxonMobil announced it would expand operations at its Beaumont, TX plant, which as easily could have occurred in Baton Rouge. It likely signals a halt to expansion and modernization efforts of its area facilities, with the potential downsizing or even closure of these in the future as production shifts to more hospitable locations, as long as the possibility of punitive taxation remains in effect.

But that shoe also landed for TBR. One of its more prominent members announced yesterday that it had left the group. It gave only vague statements as to why, but it seems likely the publicity around ITEP had so divided that church’s congregation that its leadership no longer could stomach TBR.

Perhaps more defections from religious groups will follow as some of the less attentive members realize, as a result of this incident, TBR’s placing its social gospel ahead of the real ones doesn’t match genuinely their own faiths. As for TBR, its local founder Lee Wesley, minister of the Community Bible Baptist Church, doubled down on the group’s trademark intolerance and pugnaciousness by declaring “My colleagues and I are praying for their clergy, as they struggle to discern which peace is the peace of Christ.”

In other words, he issued a fatwa dismissing Christian beliefs concerning the state and economy not congruent with his own as less legitimate. It’s that kind of rhetoric that threatens to blow the group’s cover as authentically faith-based, as opposed to employing a faith of convenience molded to fit a political agenda.

That will make it less likely that area policy-makers will fall into the trap of supporting its positions, and thus, as they recognize what’s good for TBR often isn’t good for the community as a whole, it may have reached the zenith of its influence.

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