Audit Turns Spotlight On Tax Assessments

Jeremy Alford Thursday, August 1, 2013 0
Audit Turns Spotlight On Tax Assessments

An investigation conducted by the Louisiana Legislative Auditor’s Office not only poses questions about the state Tax Commission’s practices, but also its politics.

The audit found the commission routinely approves changes to homeowners’ property tax bills that are proposed by parish tax assessors. Of the 8,884 adjustments presented in February and March, 99 percent were accepted.

Lawmakers and special interest groups complain that the five-member commission, which is appointed by Gov. Bobby Jindal, is stacked with members who are more sympathetic to assessors than taxpayers and business and industry. They contend it’s an undoing of the balance that was implemented under former Gov. Kathleen Blanco and is directly related to the very early support Jindal received from the Louisiana Assessors’ Assoc. when he ran for governor in 2007.

“You got the fox watching the henhouse. Maybe that’s why all of this is happening,” said state Sen. Robert Adley, R-Benton. “It’s a very political group. Do they need more manpower? I don’t know. But this is a group that has been loaded down with battles over the past few years.”

Using studies that showed no value changes from one assessment period to another and assessment values that far outstrip fair market values in certain cases, the audit accuses the commission of not ensuring that parish assessors are reappraising properties every four years as dictated by the constitution.

For example, a study by the auditor comparing the assessments of 2007 and 2012 shows that of Calcasieu Parish’s 53,158 properties, 3,980, or 7.5 percent, had no change whatsoever in fair market value. Moreover, a commission study from 2011 revealed that out of a sample of 204 properties in the parish, 98, or 48 percent, were outside of the acceptable 10 percent deviation between assessed value and local fair market value. The statewide average from the commission study was 39.2 percent.

In a written response, Tax Commission Chairman Pete Peters said the audit was “performed with a lack of understanding of the appropriate legal and factual background, or, even worse, with a predisposed intent to find fault where none exists.”


House Delegation Raises $2.2 Million

Louisiana’s House delegation on the Hill raised more than $2.2 million during the second quarter, according to reports filed with the Federal Election Commission. It should come as little surprise that half that sum, $1.1 million, was collected by Rep. Bill Cassidy, R-Baton Rouge, who now has $3.2 million in the bank for his 2014 bid against Sen. Mary Landrieu, a New Orleans Democrat.

Otherwise, the second quarter leader among House incumbents was Rep. Charles Boustany, R-Lafayette, who raised nearly $354,000, bringing his cash on hand to $331,000. The others stack up as follows:

— Rep. Steve Scalise, R-Metairie: $276,000 raised; $766,00 in the bank.

— Rep. John Fleming, R-Minden: $200,000 raised; $715,000 in the bank.

— Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-New Orleans: $190,000 raised; $236,000 in the bank.

— Rep. Rodney Alexander, R-Quitman: $137,000 raised; $223,000 in the bank.


Federal Flood Hikes Up For Vote

A renewed bid in Congress to delay steep increases in federal flood insurance for Louisiana homeowners is set for a vote, with the state’s whole delegation pressing for its approval. Leading the bipartisan charge are Sen. Mary Landrieu of New Orleans and Rep. Bill Cassidy, who are opposing each other in next year’s Senate election.

The Senate Homeland Security Committee is set to vote on a funding bill that contains language crafted by Cassidy ordering the Federal Emergency Management Agency to delay for one year increased premium rates for the National Flood Insurance Program.

Parish officials in south Louisiana have warned that changing the rates will cost some residents up to $20,000 more and make it unaffordable for people to stay in their homes.

Landrieu was unable to get her amendment for a three-year delay into the Senate’s farm bill, but has included the language from Cassidy’s amendment in the Dept. of Homeland Security’s appropriations bill, which she is handling.


Judicial Candidate Collects Statewide

District 2 of the state Supreme Court covers only 11 northwestern parishes. But since the impact of each of the seven justices extends statewide, attorneys and business interests from across Louisiana are already getting involved in next year’s Shreveport-based election.

District Judge Scott Crichton of Shreveport, who is challenging Justice Jeff Victory, has held recent fundraisers in New Orleans, Baton Rouge and Alexandria. Also, Lafayette attorney Glenn Armentor hosted a meet-and-greet for Crichton at the state bar association conference in Destin earlier this year.

Crichton jumped into the race late in 2012 when Victory delayed the declaration of his intention to seek re-election, which prompted speculation he would retire. Though the constitution bans judges 70 or older from running, Victory, who turns 68 next year, could serve the full 10 years if he wins a third term.

Judging from the host committee, the Baton Rouge event wasn’t confined to the trial bar. “My only requirement was to make sure it’s a diverse group,” said Crichton, who switched from Democrat to Republican last year. Victory, considered the most conservative member of the court, will be strongly supported by the Louisiana Assoc. of Business and Industry and attorneys with footholds in the sector.


Race For Top Attorney Underway

Potential challengers already have Attorney General Buddy Caldwell looking over his shoulder. But with more than $406,000 in the bank, the Democrat-turned-Republican can look toward his 2015 re-election bid with some confidence.

The latest contender is former Acadiana Congressman Jeff Landry of New Iberia. A favorite of the regional tea party movement, Landry said he likes the idea of being attorney general since the gig’s state responsibilities intersect with federal issues.  “Attorneys general across the country are making a big impact on pushing back against the overreach of the federal government,” he said. “That has really caught my attention.”

A former candidate for the Louisiana Senate, Landry, a Republican, has a state campaign finance account he zeroed out last year with a round of payments for consulting and campaign service fees.

Earlier this year, he established a new SuperPAC, Restore Our Republic, to back conservative congressional candidates in 2014. His said he plans to be especially involved in shaping the open-seat 6th Congressional District race in Louisiana — maybe even as a candidate.

Actively raising money for the attorney general race right now is 18th Judicial District assistant attorney Martin Maley, who recently switched to Republican. His private law firm, Maley, Comeaux and Falterman, has offices in Baton Rouge, Napoleonville and Port Allen. Maley has made courthouse friends by organizing fundraisers for candidates for judicial offices, regardless of party or philosophy.

“I know how to raise a dollar,” he said. “The question is can I do it for myself.”

He said he has set up 13 fundraisers for the rest of the year, starting in his home town of Natchitoches.

Also said to be looking at the race are former assistant attorney general Burton Guidry and House Speaker Pro Tem Walt Leger, D-New Orleans. Leger has more than $54,000 in his campaign kitty. He’s also expressed interest in running for speaker if he’s re-elected.

In a somewhat related twist, Assistant Attorney General David Caldwell, 39, the head of the public corruption unit and the attorney general’s son, said he plans to offer his own name for the post of U.S. attorney for the Middle District, which was left vacant by the resignation of Don Cazayoux.

U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu is taking names until Aug. 20 from those interested in the post. She will then interview prospects before she makes her recommendation to the president around Labor Day.


More Democratic Defections Expected

State Sen. Rick Ward of Maringouin is the latest Democratic state official to join the Louisiana Republican Party. He made the leap on the heels of House Appropriations Chairman Jim Fannin of Jonesboro, who announced his switch just after Independence Day.

Making headlines earlier this summer were African-American defectors Sen. Elbert Guillory of Opelousas and Central City Councilman Ralph Washington.

Ward, though, may not be the end of the line. Ross White, political director for the state GOP, said more will soon follow.

“We are in discussions with several conservative Democrats,” he said. “We’re confident that they will be switching, but we don’t know when that will be yet.”

Press reports mentioned that term-limited Fannin could be interested in running in 2015 for the state Senate seat to be vacated by the term-limited Sen. Bob Kostelka, R-Monroe. If so, he might need to change his address.

Jackson Parish, where Fannin lives, makes up only 10 percent of Senate District 35. With Ouachita Parish making up 50 percent, local observers consider Rep. Jay Morris, R-Monroe, a strong Senate prospect.


Blowback Over Assessments Continues

The state’s largest business lobby is raising more red flags over a scathing report issued recently by the Legislative Auditor’s Office.

The audit, which targeted the state Tax Commission, found the five-member board that was appointed by Gov. Bobby Jindal approved more than $118 million in assessment decreases and $10 million in increases submitted by parish tax assessors for business and residential properties for 2010 through 2012 without determining the accuracy of the new assessments. There were numerous other findings.

The Louisiana Assoc. of Business and Industry believes the findings are evidence that the current administration has abandoned the reforms initiated under former Gov. Kathleen Blanco. LABI President Dan Juneau said the previous commission did audits of assessments around the state and sent assessment rolls back to local assessors when they weren’t doing their jobs properly.

“Some parishes have a reputation for fair and accurate assessments. Some do not. Why is it that in the parishes that are more lax in accurate assessment practices, the local governments that are dependent on property tax revenues don’t raise a ruckus about the situation?” Juneau asked. “All politics are local, I guess.”