Baton Rouge, LA - From its earliest days, starting shortly after Hurricane Katrina, the network of religious congregations and citizen organizations that make up Together Louisiana asked:
How is it that Louisiana, a state as rich in resources as Texas, looks so much like Alabama?
That question led leaders to what looks like a normal state incentive program, but upon closer inspection, revealed itself to be anything but. The 87-year-old Louisiana Industrial Tax Exemption Program (ITEP) facilitates the largest state-led transfer of public dollars to private corporations in the United States.
In 2016, Together Louisiana released a ground breaking study which revealed just how unusual ITEP is and how much it costs local school districts and other taxing entities ($1.9 Billion every year). The study also showed how the Louisiana Constitution gave the Governor the authority to reform the program, a fact leaders pointed out in a nonpartisan accountability assembly with gubernatorial candidates.
After elected, and in the presence of 70 Together Louisiana leaders, Governor Bel Edwards signed an executive order overhauling ITEP for the first time in eight decades, tightening eligibility for the exemptions and -- most historic -- empowering local governmental entities that stand to lose tax revenue (i.e. school districts, municipalities and law enforcement) to determine for themselves whether the exemptions are to be granted.
Industry giants fought back hard, but Together Louisiana leaders have so far warded off attempts to limit the scope of the executive order and grandfather giveaways to Koch Industries. Together Louisiana furthermore compelled the inclusion of a "Sunshine Provision" to allow local citizens to learn when tax exemptions are are being considered, and blocked attempts to rewrite the state Constitution to allow corporations seeking tax breaks to negotiate directly with local entities.
Together Baton Rouge's research and persistence eventually sparked the interest of an investigative reporter from The Advocate, Louisiana's largest daily newspaper. In the first of three startling reports, The Advocate confirmed that the US' costliest state incentive program allowed manufacturing companies to cut jobs while depriving local parishes of billions in taxes. In one case, Exxon Mobil received $700 million over 20 years while cutting 1,900 jobs in the East Baton Rouge Parish.
IAF organizations across Louisiana continue to fight the tax giveaways.
In Caddo Parish, one company (as important to Shreveport as Exxon is to Baton Rouge) attempted to secure $8 million in tax exemptions over five years -- for work already completed and promising no additional jobs. Northern & Central Louisiana Interfaith clergy intervened and successfully blocked the tax giveaway from four public entities: Caddo Parish Commisioners, City of Shreveport, Caddo Parish School Board and Caddo Parish Sheriff.
Northern & Central Louisiana subsequently scheduled a follow up meeting with the Shreveport City Council to educate them about alternative economic development opportunities including long-term job training and investments in public infrastructure.
The organizations of Together Louisiana show no signs of letting up. The network is furthermore expanding, with an emerging group in Ascension Parish (in photo above) currently challenging a proposed tax exemption in order to preserve $25 Million for local schools.
The future of Louisiana's economy will largely depend on the future of Together Louisiana, the strength of its local organizations and the capacity of its leaders to persuade taxing entities to invest its resources wisely.
[Photo Credit: Patrick Dennis/The Advocate]
Calumet Request for Caddo Parish Tax Exemption Challenged, Shreveport Times