In The News › 1-assessor bill clears key hurdle in House

Jun 6, 2006

Source: Times-Picayune

1-assessor bill clears key hurdle in House

1-assessor bill clears key hurdle in House
Blanco goes to bat for merger plan that includes La. referendum
Tuesday, June 06, 2006
By Ed Anderson
Capital bureau

BATON ROUGE — Gov. Kathleen Blanco and the New Orleans business and civic community Monday rallied the House Ways and Means Committee to approve a proposed change in the state Constitution that would cut the number of assessors in the city from seven to one.

The panel voted 11-2 for House Bill 642 by Rep. Austin Badon Jr., D-New Orleans, clearing what was widely seen as the biggest obstacle to final passage. The bill now goes to another House committee for routine review.

The vote in Ways and Means is significant because two of its members — Rep. Alex Heaton, D-New Orleans, the brother of 7th District Assessor Henry Heaton; and Rep. Jeff Arnold, D-Algiers, the son of Algiers Assessor Tom Arnold — have helped kill consolidation efforts in the past.

The panel had voted 8-6 in a special session in February to reject a similar bill by House Speaker Joe Salter, D-Florien. Three committee members who voted against the measure in February voted for the bill Monday: Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-New Orleans; Israel Curtis, D-Alexandria; and Ernest Baylor, D-Shreveport. Neither Arnold nor Heaton was present for the final vote.

The bill passed after almost three hours of debate and words of endorsement from Blanco, who said she had called some committee members over the weekend to lobby for the measure. Representatives of the New Orleans area’s business and governmental communities also spoke in favor of the measure. Blanco has made downsizing of the New Orleans assessors and consolidation of the courts and related offices in New Orleans top-priority items during this session.

The assessors’ merger would take place in 2010, allowing those just elected to serve out their terms.

Badon’s bill is essentially the same as a Senate-passed measure by Sen. Ann Duplessis, D-New Orleans, another proposed change in the state Constitution that is awaiting assignment to a House committee. Both measures need a two-thirds vote of the Legislature and then must be submitted to voters.

To pass, the proposal must win a majority of votes statewide and in New Orleans; if it passes statewide but fails in Orleans, it is dead.

Election date at issue

The only difference in the bills is that Badon’s measure was amended by the committee, 10-5, to set the vote for the congressional elections Oct. 4, 2008, while Duplessis’ bill sets the election for this year’s congressional ballot Nov. 7. Badon said he can “live with the amendment if I have to” but may try to strip it off.

Richmond, who offered the amendment to Badon’s bill, said the later date would give more of New Orleans’ hurricane-dispersed voters a chance to return home to vote.

“If this is the last thing we do (for the city of New Orleans) before 2010, we’ll have one assessor and one resident, and it might be the same person,” said Richmond, suggesting that city faces much weightier issues.

Blanco said last week that if necessary she would use projects in the state’s operating or construction budgets to get lawmakers’ support for the bill. That set many committee members off Monday, but Blanco said she did not have to resort to those tactics.

“I find that quite unethical, quite frankly,” Heaton told Blanco. “How come everybody is switching votes?”

“I didn’t do any horse-trading,” the governor shot back.

Here is how the panel voted on the bill:

FOR: Richmond; and Reps. Damon Baldone, D-Houma; Baylor; Curtis; Rick Farrar, D-Pineville; Bobby Faucheux, D-LaPlace; Herman Ray Hill, D-Dry Creek; Lelon Kenney, D-Columbia; Billy Montgomery, D-Haughton; Jane Smith, R-Bossier City; and Taylor Townsend, D-Natchitoches.

AGAINST: Reps. Arthur Morrell, D-New Orleans; and Kenneth Odinet, D-Arabi.

ABSENT: Heaton; Arnold; and Reps. Avon Honey, D-Baton Rouge; Carla Blanchard Dartez, D-Morgan City; and Charmaine Marchand, D-New Orleans.

In the February vote, Baldone and Farrar were absent.

As chairman of the committee, Rep. Bryant Hammett, D-Ferriday, did not vote.

‘No rhyme or reason’

“This is not a bill that forces anything on anybody,” Blanco told the panel. “It is not about the personalities. It is about the system. It is about creating a system that makes sense; it is about consistency (in assessments).”

Blanco and Arthur Sterbcow, a spokesman for the New Orleans Metropolitan Realtors Association, said the existing practices of the seven assessors are not uniform and lead to overtaxation in some areas and undertaxation in others.

“There is no rhyme or reason to the present system,” said Janet Howard, president of the Bureau of Governmental Research in New Orleans, a government watchdog agency that has studied the assessment practices and has called for a one-assessor system for years. “You will be blocking recovery if you block reform efforts.”

“The system is wasteful, inefficient and unfair,” said Barry Erwin, president of the Council for a Better Louisiana, a nonpartisan issues-oriented organization.

Morrell complained that the voters already have spoken on the issue by re-electing six of the seven incumbent assessors in the April and May city elections. But Blanco said the voters could vote on an individual assessor or a challenger — not the system of one or seven assessors, which Badon’s bill would permit.

Richmond chided Greg Meffert, Mayor Ray Nagin’s representative, and the dozens of representatives of Citizens for 1 Greater New Orleans, that they should be working for other measures to help New Orleans recover — such as crime-control measures, and bills to better develop the school system and economic development in the city.

Algiers Assessor Tom Arnold asked the panel to reject the bill but pointed out that the committee has been well-lobbied by Blanco and others.

“Everybody in this committee has been talked to with phone calls,” he said. “I don’t have appropriations or (capital) outlay (funds). I just have me.”

. . . . . . .

Ed Anderson can be reached at or (225) 342-5810.

Jun 6, 2006

Source: Times-Picayune

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