Louisiana Spotlight: Below-the-radar feuds brew in Legislature
BATON ROUGE — Beyond Louisiana’s never-ending budget arguments, some lower profile disputes over billboards and sales tax collection methods are churning in the legislative session, dividing lawmakers and creating conflicts with outside groups that hold sway at the state capitol.
Two lawmakers are proposing measures aimed at reining in the number of billboards along Louisiana roadways, and the effort has rankled Baton Rouge-based Lamar Advertising Co., one of the nation’s largest outdoor advertising firms with billboards in 45 states and with nearly 500 employees in Louisiana.
The legislation sponsored by Rep. Jack McFarland, a Winnfield Republican, is scheduled for its first hearing Tuesday. He’s seeking to stall the issuance of new state permits for billboards. Lamar has launched a campaign to sink the proposal, along with a similar measure by Sen. Conrad Appel, a Metairie Republican.
McFarland said he’s heard from many people who believe the billboards lead to distracted driving and often contain distasteful images or messages. Until three months ago, he rented space on his own land to companies displaying four billboards. But he had them removed three months ago.
“The perception of the billboards is not a positive. Yes, they do enable businesses to advertise and I’m not against the advertisement of local businesses. But when those billboards occur so frequently, we have to question: Are we creating distracted driving? Are we creating hazards? Are we taking away from the natural beauty?” McFarland said.
But the legislation, which McFarland said would require support from two-thirds of lawmakers to pass, faces a tough road to passage. Lamar Advertising, a powerful and large Louisiana company, is heavily fighting both measures, calling them “anti-business.”
“We consider it an assault on our Louisiana company and more importantly on the many Louisiana owned businesses that work with us every day,” Lamar spokeswoman Allie McAlpin said in a statement.
The company says Louisiana doesn’t rank in the top 10 of states when it comes to billboard inventory, and it says Lamar has cut its number of billboards in Louisiana over the last five years.
While that sparring is intensifying, Rep. Tanner Magee has launched an even larger fight, putting himself at odds with many local elected officials across Louisiana, over their oversight of the state’s sales tax collections.
In Louisiana, parish officials handle sales tax collections. Magee, a Houma Republican, is trying to start the process of a constitutional change to centralize those collections instead, saying Louisiana is one of only two states with a fragmented system.
Magee said the tax collection method doesn’t make sense anymore as businesses have grown larger across multiple parishes and states and do more sales online.
Remitting sales tax collections individually to multiple parishes is “ridiculous. It’s just overly complex,” he said. “What does that tell those businesses about Louisiana? We’re saying we’re backward. We’re saying we’re difficult. We’re saying it’s too complex to do business in Louisiana. We make things way more difficult.”
Several business organizations are backing Magee’s proposal, describing Louisiana’s numerous sales tax collectors as cumbersome, confusing and expensive for compliance.
But local government entities are lining up to oppose the measure, saying improvements have been made in e-filing and other efficiencies while still keeping the power in the hands of local authorities who don’t necessarily trust the state to properly collect and timely allocate the dollars owed to municipalities.
“Local taxing authorities possess the best knowledge and experience to properly collect their own taxes and have a proven record of proactive advancements in the areas of enforcement, audit coverage, dispute resolution, reporting technology and successful litigation,” the Louisiana Municipal Association said in a recent newsletter.
Magee acknowledges the fight he’s picked might not be winnable this session. That’s particularly true in an election year where lawmakers often rely on the support of local elected officials to help them gain voter support.
But Magee’s not giving up.
“I don’t want to fight all the local government entities, and I think there’s a trust issue, which I understand,” he said. “It may take multiple attempts at it, but it’s time to start the conversation and start pushing the ball up the hill.”
Melinda Deslatte has covered Louisiana politics for The Associated Press since 2000. Follow her at http://twitter.com/melindadeslatte