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Taxing Issues 

Louisiana assessors traditionally find themselves in curious positions during legislative sessions. This session is no different.

From the looks of it, the legislation was one of those no-brainers, a local bill that lawmakers historically give the nod to out of courtesy and have no need to question. But for some reason, Rep. Jeff Arnold, a New Orleans Democrat, was the only legislator 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 Rep. John LaBruzzo, a Metairie Republican pacing the hallway outside the committee room. It was his bill that Arnold took a symbolic stand against earlier this month. In a matter of minutes, LaBruzzo would be presenting another bill that seeks to send a message to Arnold -- and his family, as well as other members of the Legislature.

Arnold, along with Rep. Alex Heaton, also a Crescent City Democrat, 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 and things become a tad troublesome. Fifth District Assessor Tom Arnold is one lawmaker's father, and Seventh District Assessor Henry Heaton, the other's brother.

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

Last week, when LaBruzzo went into the House and Governmental Affairs Committee to present his bill, Arnold, a member of that committee, was loaded for bear. LaBruzzo, however, knew the deck was stacked against him and voluntarily pulled the bill from consideration, vowing to seek an opinion from the state Ethics Board instead. 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, 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. Each one dealt with medical equipment -- LaBruzzo's profession.

"If he really wanted to change the rules," Arnold says, referring to an Ethics Code provision that bars lawmakers from voting on matters from which they might benefit economically, "he should have it apply to everyone."

The Arnold-LaBruzzo dust-up typifies recent assessor issues in the Legislature. They are often emotional, sometimes comical and always confrontational. The 2006 regular session is no exception.

The legislation to consolidate the Orleans assessors into one office -- and make it like others around the state -- is back this session. But it was delayed two weeks ago in a Senate committee when the votes didn't add up, despite a personal appearance by the governor. The Council for a Better Louisiana, a nonpartisan policy group, said afterward that if the consolidation idea 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 also is prepared to support increasing the homestead exemption, according to Barney "Frog" Altazan, chair of the group's legislative committee. 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, but assessors want to help homeowners in storm-devastated areas.

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

Another anomaly with regard to those positions is the fact that the association itself hasn't actually ratified either one. Instead, both are being presented at the sole discretion of the group's legislative committee. The LAA met prior to the session, but it couldn't muster a quorum, Altazan says. Another meeting is scheduled for this week, but he doubts the positions will change dramatically.

On the horizon, bubbling under the surface, Altazan says some assessors are eyeing moves by other states to transition assessors' posts from being elected to appointed. For now, he says, it's not a real threat -- and not as relevant as issues such as the homestead exemption. The turnaround on that issue is telling, Altazan says, and could indicate that assessors are adapting to a new way of life post-Katrina/Rita.

Like everybody else.

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

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