Latest state sales tax uneven

As we have said on these very pages, the state of the state’s fiscal affairs has made certain tax increases and budget cuts inevitable, even if unpleasant. The sales tax increase, while onerous in many ways, is a necessity not to be loved but lived with. In time, if the more ambitious and civic minded legislators are successful, Louisiana will wage a full frontal attack on the constitutional and statutory shortcomings that make the piecing together of an annual budget more difficult than it should be, and more attentive to the needs of special interest groups than we ever could have desired.

We were told, at the beginning of this year’s Extraordinary Session, that everyone would have to bear the burdens equally. Sacrifices would be made to continue providing some level of health care to the indigent, and education to those who desire college. The budget crisis has not been altogether averted. But the effects of crisis management, which we in this state have grown so accustomed to over nearly a decade that we have come to see it as normal, remain, as do the politics of it. The politics of it has reared its ugly head, unnoticed until last week, when people and industries who lost their sales tax exemptions found out what really emerged from the state capitol’s sausage factory, and for some the yield was rancid.

As occurs routinely with the budget, the weakest and those least able to defend themselves from the budget rapier were marginalized, hit with blows that they never expected.

Louisiana’s commercial fishermen have understood for a long time that the price of their way of life, enviable to some, is fiscal uncertainty. Yet they were singled out, clearly targeted, by a conference committee of legislators who appear not to have bothered consulting with colleagues familiar with the coast, and with fishermen’s needs.

A long-standing sales tax exemption has shielded commercial fishermen from sales taxes on their boats, motors, oil, trawls, crab cages and other equipment. The exemption was suspended, set to be restored in increments. But the effects will be broadly felt by these individuals, who have managed to survive a mammoth oil spill, various hurricanes and other assaults on their livelihoods. They have continued to work despite a global economic system that undermines their best efforts, even as they have tried to embark on various marketing programs that would give them a better shot at a fair place in the market. The best and brightest of a new generation of fishermen have worked with state and federal officials to correct problems in the industry themselves.

Fishermen and the dock owners they sell to said repeatedly in interviews over the past weekend that they will survive suspension of their sales tax exemptions. They, more than many other people, understand the need of sacrifice in favor of the public good. But the suspension of their tax credit, as a result of what the legislature passed and the governor signed, will subsidize the tax credits retained for farmers, buyers of airplanes and aquaculture operations. The resulting robbery, as many prepare to outfit their boats for a new season, is not so much one of the pocket as of the spirit. It is a marginalization of mammoth proportions, a reflection of the low esteem some people, particularly those in the northern part of our state, have for them.

As with the fisherman, arguments can be made when any such matter is being decided that one industry or another contributes to the good of the state overall, and so deserves protection. But to single out a few such industries, to say in essence that they don’t matter enough to justify equal treatment, is cruel and unthinking.

Three local members of the House of Representatives voted against the bill that carved out the exemptions, Tanner Magee, Beryl Amedee and Jerome Zeringue, and they are to be commended. Other local legislators – Jerry Gisclair and Dee Richard – voted for it but did not realize the exemptions were there. They had about five minutes to go over the legislation. They now question the wisdom of their votes.

Richard has suggested an amendment. What needs to be amended is the exemption package overall. Theft from the spirit can be far more damaging than theft from the pocket. And the spirit of our local fishermen must be preserved. •