It might be a bit formal for a Mardi Gras parade, but if one float-rider/lawmaker has his druthers this session, the phrase would certainly apply to future carnivals. State Rep. Peppi Bruneau, R-New Orleans, is pushing legislation that would allow Mardi Gras krewes to sell specialty items to their memberships -- as long as the official logo is emblazoned on the items -- without charging state and local taxes. That means everything from doubloons and plush toys to costumes and bead bags would be legally tax-free for float-riders if the items are specific to their krewes.
The House Ways and Means Committee passed House Bill 90 last week over the symbolic objection of one member who used the opportunity to stump for tax breaks for Louisiana churches. At press time, the bill had also been approved by the full House, but still had to navigate the upper chamber.
The tax-exempt status isn't anything new, however. Krewe insiders say a 'general understanding' has prevailed about the status, but that the issue came to a head in recent years because of audits by the state Department of Revenue. The fiscal investigations yielded an unclear interpretation of how exemptions should be applied, some say, and the general understanding came under new fire.
Bruneau, who managed to proudly brag on his own krewe during the committee meeting without divulging its identity, told lawmakers that the audits served as a catalyst for his legislation.
Earl Millet, the New Orleans regional director for the state Department of Revenue, sat through much of last week's hearing in silence, but confirmed that Mardi Gras krewes do enjoy a tax-free status -- although it is not officially in statute. As such, the proposed change would have little or no impact on the revenue streams of state and local governments. In a tight budget year like this one, that tag can make or break a bill. Bruneau has been diligent about making this point, as well as underscoring the economic benefits of Carnival.
Approximately 150 Mardi Gras parades roll in Louisiana each year, of which 70 are in the greater New Orleans area. According to a 2000 study commissioned by the Mayor of New Orleans' Mardi Gras Advisory Committee, the most recent data available, these krewes are capable of dishing out hordes of cash. In Orleans, Jefferson and St. Bernard parishes alone, krewes spent more than $15 million on parades, balls, dinners, dances and parties that year. They also spent an additional $25 million on throws and costumes.
John Beninate, the captain of Morpheus and a member of several other krewes, says the rising cost of Mardi Gras is becoming prohibitive. For instance, the price tag associated with marching bands has jumped from about $800 five years ago to $1,500 today, he says. Insurance has likewise become an issue. As recently as this year, New Orleans krewes like Zulu, and others such as Spanish Town in Baton Rouge, were forced into panic mode as insurance writers jacked up premiums.
Beninate says the Bruneau bill could be one saving grace: 'It's to the point that you'll see a shake-up in Mardi Gras soon. We really need some help.'
Ralph Plaideau Sr., a past captain of Krewe of Mid-City, says he supports the bill because the provision needs to be free from challenge. Anything else would be inconsistent with what the state has offered for generations, he says. 'Right now it's a gray area that someone can come over and open up a can of worms with,' Plaideau says.
For others, it's simply a matter of public service. 'I think it's the right thing to do,' says Staci Rosenberg, a member of the Krewe of Muses. 'When krewes buy Mardi Gras throws, they are doing it for the general public.'
In Thibodaux, Jerry Jones, president of the community parade group Krewe of Shaka, says he supports the tax proposal because it would give his krewe an opportunity to keep shifting savings into an often-overlooked area. For 11 years, Jones says, his krewe has been sponsoring underprivileged children with an annual scholarship fund and hosting 'adopt-a-child' programs that aid local children through the school year. 'We can take that money we're saving and forward it to helping more kids,' Jones says.
The only vocal opposition to the bill during last week's committee hearing came from Rep. Rick Farrar, D-Pineville, who said he voted against the concept for symbolic reasons. 'I'm trying to get a tax credit for our churches,' Farrar says. 'I can't get that passed here, but we can give one to Mardi Gras?'
To all naysayers, the jovial Bruneau had but one threat: 'No doubloons for you.' On a more serious note, he countered that Mardi Gras is a privately funded venture and the tax break would have little impact on state and local coffers.
Still pushing his point, Farrar attempted to amend the legislation to include VFW halls and church groups. The rural lawmaker argued that these groups hold forth on Fat Tuesday as well. The move produced a chuckle from Bruneau, who attempted to point out differences but opted against it, saying instead, 'I don't know how y'all do it in Convent or whatever.'
Farrar, responding: 'Well, I definitely don't know how ya'll do it in New Orleans.'
Bruneau, with the last word: 'Oh, we do it better.'