In The News › Many old issues re-emerge as New Orleans prepares for upcoming legislative session

Many old issues re-emerge as New Orleans prepares for upcoming legislative session

By Jeff Adelson

The Advocate

April 7, 2017

As far as New Orleans is concerned, the session of the state Legislature starting Monday is likely to be a lot like last year’s.

On multiple fronts, Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s office is girding for a repeat of past battles. On defense, City Hall will be looking to beat back bills aimed at barring traffic cameras throughout the state, blocking the removal of Confederate monuments and punishing the city for failing to cooperate more closely with federal immigration authorities.

On offense, Landrieu will be pushing measures to trim property tax exemptions for nonprofits and to relieve police officers from having to deal with minor traffic accidents.

Overall, Landrieu’s office is tracking nearly half of the 1,500 bills that have filed so far to see how they might affect New Orleans, Deputy Mayor Ryan Berni said.

As far as the city’s priorities go, a measure filed by state Sen. Wesley Bishop, D-New Orleans, that would allow civilians to handle minor traffic accidents is at the top of the list.

The city tried to get legislation passed last year that would keep police officers from having to respond to minor accidents, instead allowing drivers to file their own reports. The city argued the change would keep officers in the understaffed Police Department from having to spend time sorting out those incidents. The measure failed because of opposition from insurance companies.

This year’s measure would allow civilians to respond to accidents that don’t involve injuries, keeping officers from being tied up for hours handling relatively minor incidents, Berni said.

Perhaps more significantly, the city also is looking to take another run at changes to the Louisiana Constitution that would allow it to tax some properties that are owned by nonprofits.

Rep. Neil Abramson, D-New Orleans, has filed two constitutional amendments that would make some changes in that area. One would affect only New Orleans; the other would allow municipalities statewide to opt for similar changes.

Under the bills, properties that are owned by a nonprofit but are vacant or not used for the organization’s mission would be subject to property taxes.

The measures would require municipalities to roll back their tax rate so that they don’t receive greater revenue after those properties go on the rolls, which would lower the rates paid by those now taxed, Abramson said.

Abramson, who chairs the House Ways and Means Committee and has pushed similar measures twice in the past, said that allowing parishes more freedom to determine how they collect revenue is aimed not just at helping those jurisdictions but also at fixing broader problems that force local governments to rely on state revenue. That exacerbates the state’s ongoing budget woes, he said.

“The more flexibility local governments have on their own matters, we can get the state out of that business,” he said.

If passed by two-thirds of each house in the Legislature, the constitutional amendments would then have to be approved by voters both statewide and in Orleans Parish.

The amendments would also allow Orleans or any other parish covered by the changes to pass ordinances rebating up to 50 percent of the taxes that would be newly imposed on nonprofit properties. Those exemptions would also have to be approved by the voters.

Abramson’s approach is a slice of a larger set of recommendations issued by the nonpartisan Bureau of Governmental Research in 2011 and revived in a letter to lawmakers earlier this year that called for trimming back on the state’s generous nonprofit exemptions, which go beyond most other states in allowing private organizations and other groups that don’t have clearly defined public benefits to avoid paying taxes.

Amy Glovinsky, the group’s president and CEO, said BGR is focused on “bringing our exemptions in line with national norms.”

The city is also looking at changes to state law that would allow the Regional Transit Authority to enter into public-private partnerships, Berni said. While naming projects such as a proposed downtown transit hub, new Canal Street ferry terminal and expanded streetcar network, Berni said no specific plans were on the table.

The city is also looking at legislation that would provide a new funding source for local ferries. The state’s budget crisis has kept it from providing about $700,000 a year that was supposed to go toward easing the transition to the RTA’s management of the ferry system.

Other measures in the city’s legislative package would change the makeup of the Industrial Development Board, to allow city employees and City Council members to serve on it, and would allow the city to hire new Sewerage & Water Board employees outside of the civil service system, something Berni said is necessary to speed up the pace of hiring.

The city also wants to be allowed to collect a larger portion of the taxes brought in by short-term rentals; that money now is spread across a number of entities.

The city also is lining up behind statewide efforts supported by Gov. John Bel Edwards, including an overhaul of the criminal justice system aimed at reducing incarceration and a measure mandating equal pay for men and women doing the same job.

On the defensive side, the city is opposing measures that would allow the state Attorney General’s Office to strip state grants from, and file suits against, so-called “sanctuary cities” that don’t fully cooperate with federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement requests to detain people for possible deportation proceedings. The NOPD and the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office both have policies that fit into that category, though those policies are the result of lawsuits and court orders.

New Orleans will be fighting to kill three bills aimed at protecting monuments to three high Confederate officials and a white supremacist militia that the City Council has authorized Landrieu to take down.

The city will also be pushing back against a bill by Rep. Paul Hollis, R-Covington, that would ban the use of cameras to issue traffic tickets.

“The key question for folks is: Is (writing traffic tickets) something that you think police officers should be doing instead of fighting violent crime?” Berni said.

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The city is still considering how other bills would affect local policies, including a statewide licensing system for ride-hailing companies such as Uber and Lyft. That legislation would override local ordinances and prevent local jurisdictions from imposing taxes or higher requirements on the companies, such as insurance requirements that the New Orleans City Council has mandated.

“There are obviously a number of bills we’ll be watching,” Berni said. “Anything that encroaches on the ability of local government to make decisions for its citizens.”

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