Louisiana Bond Commission approves long slate of December tax elections

By David Jacobs | The Center Square

The Louisiana State Bond Commission on Thursday approved 61 local tax elections that will appear on voters’ December ballots, amid discussions about whether commission members should get involved in the policy debates behind those proposals.

The commission also will let five local government entities borrow to pay their operating expenses, a practice State Treasurer John Schroder, who chairs the commission, finds worrisome.

All but one of the tax elections were approved in a single vote, as is common practice for the Bond Commission. The proposals, most of which are renewals of existing taxes, fund everything from fire protection to drainage to crime prevention in specific neighborhoods.

The Richland Parish School Board’s $12 million bond proposal inspired more than an hour of debate and testimony from supporters and detractors. It’s a scaled-down version of a $24 million proposal voters narrowly rejected last year, speakers said.

Proponents said borrowing the money will allow for desperately needed upgrades to three schools in Delhi. But a speaker representing the opposition said they still aren’t convinced all of the spending is necessary and worried higher taxes would hurt the parish’s business climate.

Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin, who runs the state’s elections, said he would support deferring the school board’s proposal so the two sides could try to reach an agreement. He suggested there was no point spending taxpayer dollars on a ballot proposal that could fail and end up on the ballot again in the spring.

Ardoin said the cycle of local governments bringing back tax proposals voters already have rejected was causing “voter fatigue.”

“We have an issue with too many elections,” he said. “It does cost money to put things on the ballot.”

But Schroder noted that the Bond Commission usually limits itself to making sure election proposals meet the legal standards but leaves the policy debates to local officials and voters.

“I don’t think this Bond Commission should be a rubber stamp,” Senate President Page Cortez said.

Cortez wondered why the opponents and proponents were even allowed to speak about the policy issues if the commission wasn’t going to tackle those issues. Schroder responded that it was a public meeting and members of the public had a right to comment.

He also said that any of the election proposals, a few of which also have failed before, theoretically could be subjected to the same scrutiny. Ultimately the commission approved the Richland Parish election without objection.

As he has previously, Schroder raised concerns about local government entities borrowing to pay for operating expenses. Of the five such proposals approved Thursday, one, for the Lafayette Parish Convention and Visitors Commission, was described as “COVID-19 emergency financing.”

Schroder wondered what would happen if the economy doesn’t bounce back from this year’s pandemic-related recession.

“Where do they turn if they can’t pay these bonds?” he said.

Schroder closed the meeting by pointing to what he considered good news, which was local entities refinancing existing debt at favorable rates.