15 June 2009

Floor action, Jun. 15: HB 835, HB 889, HB 903

HB 835 by Rep. Robert Johnson would levy a fee onto railroads to pay for additional safety inspections. Its author argued that the Public Service Commission had been empowered by the Legislature last year to do this, but a court challenge was slowing the progress. This bill would clarify the law to enable the PSC to begin collecting the money to hire six inspectors. He said it was a fee the industry easily could handle

Rep. Frank Hoffman brought an amendment that would require that the inspectors not be new hires. He explained that Louisiana’s current fiscal problems were as a result of too many employees, and his amendment would prevent there being new expenditures for this purpose. Johnson objected, saying the specialized nature of the job would be too burdensome and cut down on quality. But the amendment carried the day 62-20.

Rep. Thomas Carmody said he was troubled by the expansion of government involved, and asked whether the federal government should not provide more inspectors. Johnson said he didn’t think they would provide more than one. Carmody said he doubted he could support this bill, and Johnson answered that a negative vote on such an important matter if a future accident happened would leave blood on the finger by which he cast his vote. Carmody agreed it was an important vote.

Rep. Joe Harrison said the big difference between this bill and the last was this had a fee, and that the matter was now in litigation. He also pointed out that railroad crossings, where the major liability was, would not be covered as that was a federal area of regulation. So, he argued, they wouldn’t be adding much value for fees that would be passed on to consumers. The federal government had jurisdiction, so let the federal government pay for it and do it, he argued. Johnson claimed that there was jurisdiction, through the federal government.

Rep. Karen St. Germain said the bill and fee were necessary. She said it wasn’t too much to pay and it was unwise to leave policing in the hands of the companies themselves.

Rep. Wayne Waddell asked whether Johnson thought the cost would be passed down to consumers. He said that wasn’t necessarily true and that more could be saved by them doing this, in term of reduced liability. Then, Waddell, asked, why weren’t railroads doing this already if it was so cost effective? Johnson couldn’t say, but said the railroads themselves had come up with the number of six inspectors.

Johnson closed by apologizing to Carmody for his passion. He said the situation was “the fox guarding the henhouse” and too many accidents were occurring to say things were acceptable. He said the industry knew how unsafe things were and said it was hoping people wouldn’t wake up to this. A vote for the bill would prevent unsafe situations like nuclear waste being derailed in communities.

After a lockout quorum was established at 94, the amended bill failed to pass 49-45. Johnson asked for future reconsideration even before the vote was announced, probably assuming he might get votes out of the 11 absentees, and got it.

HB 889 would increase taxes on tobacco. Author Rep. Karen Peterson said health care was going to pot in the state and a “comprehensive” solution was needed, with her bill. She said it would provide funds to improve outcomes and research, and tobacco in particular caused the four leading causes of death in the state. She said it was for the children, to prevent them from smoking and for treatment, and claimed tobacco use cost hundreds per household a year in taxes because it was too cheap to access. She said “conservative” states were raising tobacco taxes, so why shouldn’t Louisiana be “responsible” and follow suit? She said the money raised also would constitute economic development and bring in federal grant dollars. Also, she claimed, 71 percent of the public supported tobacco taxes. She asserted it was not about Gov. Bobby Jindal, but really about health and the economy.

Rep. Walter Leger asked whether this would be a declining revenue source. She said it wouldn’t be, saying the total take has increased over the years. He also got her to remind that an increase still would keep the state below the tax rates of other neighboring states. He also wondered why vote for it if the governor was going to veto it; she said the override was the same as passage for this tax increase, and said Jindal was a long-time tool of “big tobacco” so she wanted to tilt away anyway. She also claimed it would help inject $250 million of grant money into the health care system.

Rep. Rosalind Jones asked how such a tax could be passed on to poorer people. Peterson said even if it is a regressive tax, she argued the bill would make them behave in a healthier way. She reminded again she was for “the children.”

Speaking of behalf of the bill, Leger said the anti-tax rhetoric was a front by tobacco companies to obscure the deadliness of the product, which they could use to manipulate people into becoming addicted. That aside, it was therefore an “easy” vote.

Speaking against it, Rep. Joe Lopinto said this simply was a tax, and that people knew what they were doing when it came to smoking and paying taxes. The real question was whether this was a justifiable tax in the environment of where cuts were needed in the size of government. His constituents had made it clear they wanted smaller government, not higher taxes. Therefore, why raise revenue before cutting the size of government? If extra money was to be raised from users, why not let the people keep it instead of giving it to government? After this, Rep. John Labruzzo called the question, which was objected to and failed to pass 44-50.

Speaking for it, Rep. Cedric Richmond claimed the costs of tobacco to the health care system exceeded more than double the current tobacco tax, so non-smokers were paying for it. Even if it was threatened by a veto, he said let the governor go ahead and try to explain it. Rep. Hollis Downs said his father’s death associated with smoking made him dead set against smoking, and since he said it couldn’t be gotten rid of, it should be taxed more. Rep. Roy Burrell said if he were an example, he needed help struggling with addiction to tobacco, and that this bill could do it.

Closing, Peterson said so many spoke for it and only one against because it was a good bill. She argued a moral compass should tell one it was right and that you didn’t need lobbyists to tell you what was right and wrong. Not everybody could break addictions, and they needed help. It wasn’t a matter of self-control, she claimed, if somebody like Pres. Barack Obama couldn’t stop smoking completely.

After a lockout quorum was established at 100, the bill was defeated 45-55.

HB 903 by Rep. Jeff Arnold would force popular approval of any roll forwards of property taxes, through a constitutional amendment. Governing authorities whose members were appointed could only roll forward no more than 2.5 percent any year. After a technical amendment was passed, Arnold said an adjustment in the Senate would be made dealing with fire districts, who were considerably opposed to the bill otherwise. Rep. Mert Smiley thought that was more than fair and wondered why any future amendment was needed.

The amended bill passed 74-16.

Any other questions?
Oh, yeah!
Speaker Jim Tucker to Peterson, during the question period.

No comments: