In The News › Changing the system vs. changing the subject

Jun 6, 2006

Source: Times-Picayune

Changing the system vs. changing the subject

Changing the system, vs. the subject
Tuesday, June 06, 2006
Stephanie Grace

Gov. Kathleen Blanco sat down Monday before the House Ways and Means Committee, to
plead once again that New Orleans residents be allowed to vote on whether to merge the city’s
seven assessors into a single office.

The arguments outlined by Blanco are by now familiar: Citizens have the right to vote on an
issue of obvious importance to their future. Moreover, in case it wasn’t obvious: A multipleassessors
system has proved needlessly costly and an invitation to favoritism and outright
corruption. It has led to gross inequities in valuations, and because new purchases get whacked
with full-valuation while long-owned structures are underassessed, the system has stifled the
market.

After she was done, state Rep. Jeff Arnold, looked the governor in the eye and started talking
about cockfighting.

I’m not making this up.

Arnold is the son of 5th District Assessor Tom Arnold and generally the Legislature’s most vocal
opponent of a streamlined assessor office. But family ties didn’t make his gambit the first or even
the most aggressive effort to change the subject.

That honor belonged to Arnold’s New Orleans colleague, Rep. Arthur Morrell, who declared the
question asked and answered by the results of the recent election, in which six of seven
incumbents triumphed over a slate of candidates who campaigned on a pro-merger platform.

Me, I read my whole ballot and don’t recall seeing a merger option there at all. But I digress —
and so did the bill’s opponents. Why isn’t the governor trying to merge the St. Bernard and
Plaquemines Parish assessors, Morrell wanted to know, as if they weren’t separate parishes.
“I appreciate the diversionary tactics, but this is about Orleans,” Blanco reminded the panel.
Arnold asked why, if Blanco is so concerned about Louisiana’s image, she hadn’t testified for the
recently defeated anti-cockfighting bill.

“I think it’s more about equity than perception,” Blanco said. “Taxation touches every single
individual.”

And so it went.

Did the witnesses know that Cook County, Illinois, has not one but 31 assessors, Arnold
demanded.

Actually, Cook County has just one assessor, though there are so-called “township assessors” —
the apparent source of Arnold’s confusion — who serve as liaisons between taxpayers and Cook
County Assessor’s Office.

Rep. Ken Odinet, attempting to answer the under-assessments-lead-to-higher-tax rates
argument, claimed that millages can’t be raised without a vote of the people. Wrong again, as
anyone who just received a New Orleans tax bill can attest.

Meanwhile, state Rep. Alex Heaton, brother of 7th District Assessor Henry Heaton, who has
never before Monday seen fit to recuse himself from voting on assessor matters, declared the
governor’s hint that she was willing to engage in legislative horsetrading “quite unethical,
frankly.”

He then proceeded to work himself into such a lather that he was soon claiming his crowd was
the victim of a “$150 million” media campaign by the pro-merger “I.Q.” ticket. Only after a round
of chuckles did he correct himself. The group’s budget was $150,000.

Morrell then jumped back in, to grill Bureau of Governmental Research president Janet Howard
over why she used a per-parcel figure to evaluate costs, as opposed to the per-person figure that
assessor backers like to use. Howard’s answer? Logic: The tax is based on the value of the
parcel, not the number of people living in it.

Why the frantic tenor of the fight? No mystery there: Proponents of a merger had the votes in
hand to get the measure out of committee and proceeded to do so. Next stop is a vote of the full
House.

Ken Odinet harrumphed that he resented being forced to vote for the bill and then proceeded to
vote no anyway, along with Morrell. Arnold and Heaton didn’t vote, but only, word was, because
they knew they couldn’t change the outcome.

And before it was all over, a number of legislators, and even Blanco herself, joined to defend the
ethics and professionalism of, you got it, Jeff Arnold and Alex Heaton, who, they pointed out, are
in a very difficult position.

And if you buy that, I’ve got a mansion on St. Charles Avenue to sell you. Don’t worry about a
hefty tax bill. It’s only assessed at $75,000.
. . . . . . .
Stephanie Grace can be reached at sgrace@timespicayune.com of (504) 826-3383.

Jun 6, 2006

Source: Times-Picayune

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