The recent debacle over Louisiana's tax credits for vehicles that run on alternative fuels reminds me of a memorable scene from Casablanca
. In the classic 1942 film, Capt. Louis Renault, the ethically malleable chief of the local gendarmes, loudly blows his police whistle and announces to an overflow crowd at Rick's Cafe that he is closing the popular nightclub and casino.
When Rick, portrayed by Humphrey Bogart, demands to know why, Renault piously proclaims, "I'm shocked — shocked! — to find that gambling is going on in here!"
At that moment a croupier hands a wad of cash to Renault and says, with perfect deadpan, "Your winnings, sir."
Renault reflexively takes the cash and says to the croupier, "Oh, thank you very much." Then, without missing a beat, he turns to the crowd and shouts as he waves his cash-filled hand, "Everybody out at once!"
That scene perfectly sums up the hypocrisy on parade in Baton Rouge these days as relates to Act 469 of 2009. The act grants income tax credits up to $3,000 for those who buy vehicles that burn "alternative fuels." The act defines such fuels broadly, including "compressed natural gas, liquefied natural gas, liquefied petroleum gas, biofuel, biodiesel, methanol, ethanol and electricity."
Gov. Bobby Jindal signed the measure into law — then everybody pretty much forgot about it.
Three years later, Revenue Secretary Cynthia Bridges, who held her job under three governors, issued an "emergency" ruling that added 112 vehicles (including many popular models) to the law's application. That seems reasonable given the law's inclusion of "ethanol" in the definition of "alternative fuels." She also made the ruling retroactive to 2009.
The timing of Bridges' ruling is interesting. She issued it April 30, while lawmakers were still in session, and it apparently was something of a state secret — except among leading legislators. Some of them, like House Appropriations Chairman Jim Fannin, D-Jonesboro, quickly took advantage of Bridges' ruling and filed amended tax returns. Fannin, in fact, claimed two vehicles. State Senate President John Alario, who owns a tax preparation business, filed for credits on behalf of his clients. All perfectly legal.
Then came news, via the Monroe News-Star, that the fiscal impact of the act had suddenly shot up from the $1 million projected in 2009 to $100 million this year — thanks to Bridges' retroactive ruling.
At that point, Fannin and other lawmakers proclaimed themselves shocked — shocked! — to find that Bridges had expanded the application of the law so widely, notwithstanding its plain language. Fannin, doing his best impression of Capt. Renault, solemnly told the News-Star, "It could wreck us. ... I just found out about it before the (legislative) session ended (June 4)."
But Fannin is hardly the only Renault in this modern cast of usual suspects. An equally shocked Jindal, fresh from his latest out-of-state GOP star turn, rescinded Bridges' ruling on technical grounds and promptly accepted her resignation — while thanking her for her service. For now (i.e., until a court challenge), the state will honor credits filed before June 14. Jindal remains mum on how he will address the unequal treatment accorded taxpayers as a result of this snafu.
Meanwhile, the governor has named deputy secretary Jane Smith as interim revenue secretary. Smith, it turns out, was lead author of the 2009 alternative fuels tax credit. She was then Rep. Smith, R-Bossier City, but she lost a bid for the state Senate in 2011. Lucky girl, she landed a job in the Jindal Administration — even though, by her own admission, she "didn't know a thing about revenue, or taxation, or nothing like that."
Given such eloquence, I'm surprised Jindal didn't name her poet laureate.
Asked about Bridges' ruling and the scope of the law she authored, Smith likewise was shocked that it could apply so broadly. She averred that Bridges did not consult her before issuing the ruling. Never mind that Smith knew nothing about revenue, or taxation, or nothing like that.
Smith also proclaimed that she intended the law to apply to compressed natural gas. If that were the case, why did she include so many other "alternative fuels" in her legislation?
Maybe she also didn't know a thing about bills, or laws, or nothing like that.