Gov. Bobby Jindal finally unveiled his tax-swap plan last week — almost. After promising to produce a bill by March 15, he instead gave lawmakers a two-page summary of high-minded but vague talking points, which at least was more than the one-page summary he previously used.
For example, he acknowledged that he wants to raise the state sales tax from 4 percent to 5.88 percent — a hike of 47 percent. That will give most parts of Louisiana the highest combined state and local sales tax rates in the country. (Jindal ignores that aspect of the plan.) At the same time, his handout alluded to eliminating "unnecessary" state sales tax exemptions, but didn't specifically cite any of them.
It was more than a tad ironic — metaphoric might be more like it — that the live online video stream of Jindal's address last Thursday to the joint meeting of the House Ways & Means Committee and the Senate Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Committee had no audio. Not long after he left the witness table, the audio came back on. The next day, the archived version of the video still had no audio for Jindal's presentation.
Given the governor's penchant for keeping his most controversial initiatives under tight wraps until the last possible minute, one can't help wondering if audio blackout was a technical glitch or a Machiavellian ploy straight out of Richard Nixon's playbook.
In any event, Jindal won't be able to play hide-the-ball much longer. That strategy worked fine last year with his education reform package, but things are different now. For starters, it was relatively easy then to sell the idea that teachers are responsible for Louisiana's poor educational outcomes. This year, it won't be so easy to convince people that paying the highest sales taxes in the country will be good for business.
The political landscape shifted, too. Jindal's popularity is falling like a rock. Voters, as well as a growing number of lawmakers, no longer seem willing to follow him blindly. Moreover, the governor faces much higher procedural hurdles with this tax-swap plan. He needed only a simple majority in each legislative chamber to pass his education plan last year; he'll need two-thirds to raise the sales tax this session. He has been told by more than one lawmaker that any plan to hike sales taxes is DOA in the House.
It's not just lawmakers who are upset with Jindal's plan — and his failure to deliver a bill with specifics, as promised, by March 15. A coalition of powerful associations representing sheriffs, district attorneys, school boards, local governments and others is poised to oppose the plan for a variety of reasons. Then there's the deafening silence from the business community, which should be a bedrock of support for a Republican governor.
It's hard to imagine retailers and the hospitality industry backing a plan to hike sales taxes by 47 percent. One can only wonder why they've stayed silent this long.
Last week, in response to criticism that his plan would hurt the poor and middle-class taxpayers, Team Jindal released figures purportedly showing that virtually all individual taxpayers would come out ahead under the governor's plan. If that's true, and if the plan really is "revenue-neutral" as Jindal has promised, then the plan must shift more of the tax burden to businesses.
But wait ... Jindal says this plan is designed to make Louisiana more attractive to businesses.
It's a zero-sum game, folks. If the plan is revenue-neutral, and if individuals will pay less under its provisions, then there's only one place to make up the difference: businesses. Either that, or the governor's lying about who's going to pay what.
Finally, as John Maginnis astutely noted in his column last week, how can Jindal say on one hand that we need to "fix" our tax code because it makes us so unattractive to business — and then brag about all the business and industry he has attracted to Louisiana as governor? Either the system is broken or it's not.
Truth is, parts of Louisiana's tax code are quite broken. Unfortunately, those are not the parts that Bobby Jindal is trying to "fix" with his 47 percent solution.