Two bills introduced today in the second post-Katrina special session of the Louisiana Legislature propose constitutional amendments that would drastically alter Orleans Parish’s dysfunctional system of how property is assessed for taxation purposes. gardner_taxes_new.jpg
Although every other parish in Louisiana has just one elected assessor, Orleans Parish is constitutionally required to maintain a seven-person board of assessors, with one member elected from each of the city’s municipal districts. The city’s assessors have come under heavy fire lately, with critics suggesting they have not fairly re-assessed properties over the years as real estate values have increased. More recently, the assessors have been criticized for their inconsistent devaluation of properties following the hurricane, including a 50 percent deduction of properties in some undamaged neighborhoods. (Thanks, by the way.)

The system, say the critics, encourages the assessors to keep artificially low the assessment values for long-time property owners, who are often influential campaign contributors. The victims of this process are newer buyers, such as young people and transplants, whose property is always assessed at the value at which they purchase it. Of course, city’s denizens as a whole also suffer, as they are not only deprived of badly needed post-Katrina tax revenues, but are forced to pay over $90,000 per year in salaries per assessor.

The first bill, House Bill 50, would amend the constitution to make Orleans Parish the same as every other parish, with one elected assessor per parish. The bill was introduced by Rep. Joe Salter (D), the influential Speaker of the House, from Florien, Louisiana (292 miles from New Orleans), and is evidently supported by Governor Blanco. It has been assigned to the House Ways and Means Committee.

House Bill 69, is more drastic, and is probably just a smokescreen to provide political cover for New Orleans legislators who oppose Salter’s bill. It proposes doing away with elected assessors throughout the state altogether, and proposes a single assessor appointed by the Governor. The sponsor of that bill is Rep. Cedric Richmond of New Orleans East. Interestingly, Richmond has been criticizing Governor Blanco for pushing the consolidation of New Orleans city government, urging her to remain focused on non-divisive issues during the special session, such as levees and insurance.  Or perhaps he is just friendly with the seven assessor powerbrokers.

In any event, both bills face an uphill battle against a powerful seven-person board that will vehemently campaigning against reform. And because the change requires altering the constitution, either bill must garner a 2/3 vote from both the Senate and the House.  If one of the bills survives that arduous process, it must then win a majority of votes in the next statewide election. As for Salter’s bill, because it directly affects Orleans Parish only, a majority of the voters of Orleans Parish must also vote in favor of it. See La. Const. art. XIII, s 1.

The special session is scheduled to last only 11 days, until February 17, 2006.  Developing . . .