This week the Louisiana legislature has advanced three bills aimed at redirecting some of New Orleans’ tax dollars away from the tourism industry towards infrastructure.
Several people have traveled to the state capitol to testify in support of HB521, HB522, and HB573, including the Mayor herself.
“I’d like to talk about something that’s often overlooked about infrastructure,” said Captain Aaron Mischler, President of the New Orleans Firefighter’s Association in testimony before the committee on Monday, “and that’s public safety and life safety. The infrastructure in New Orleans, as everyone knows, is dilapidated and has been falling apart for years,” Mischler said. “By not taking care of this now, there’s a 100% chance lives will be lost.”
After hearing his testimony on Monday, the House Ways and Means Committee advanced HB522 without objection. The bill restores a 1% sales and use tax that was suspended decades ago in favor of other taxes used to fund the construction of the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
On Tuesday, Mayor LaToya Cantrell skipped a US conference of mayors where she is the vice chair of the infrastructure committee to deliver her own impassioned plea before legislators. “I have boil water advisories that can come at any time. I have 111-year-old pipes that can burst, again, at any given time,” Cantrell stated.
“We need just a little bit more of what’s generated in the city of New Orleans… Last year we saw 18 million visitors. When you do the math, based on the population, that’s 48 visitors per one resident,” she pointed out. “Just imagine 48 people living in your house, flushing your toilet, taking showers, on your roads, on your streets. This is what we’re faced with in the city.”
After her testimony, the committee advanced HB521, which reduces the cap on the hotel industry’s self-assessment. Currently, hotel owners impose a 1.75 percent tax on their guests, which results in $18 million in revenue. That revenue is currently directed towards marketing the city to visitors, bringing in major events, and paying for extras. The bill essentially takes .25 percent of that money – around $4.5 million – and redirects it towards infrastructure projects to improve drainage. New Orleans voters would have to approve that change, should the bill pass the Louisiana House.
Stephen Perry, head of New Orleans & Co., one of the private tourism entities that uses the money in question to market the city to business visitors, said in an interview that hotel owners are so opposed to giving the city that .25 percent, that they would simply stop collecting the 1.75 percent tax altogether, forfeiting the $18 million in revenue.
“What you have before you is a very earnest attempt to take down and destroy the largest economic development corporation in Louisiana,” he told the committee.
The committee also advanced HB573, which would allow the city to access some of the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center’s $235 million in reserves. Currently, around $79 million of those reserves are slated to fund the construction of a linear park with shaded greenery, wooden benches, a fountain, and an expanse of lawn. Michael Sawaya, the Convention Center president and general manager has argued that the park is a necessary investment to improve the Convention Center’s ability to compete.
“We’ll have the nicest street in the city,” Sawaya said in an interview.
Mayor Cantrell would rather see some of those reserves used to help repair the city’s infrastructure. “The thing is,” said Kristine Breithaupt, communications director for the mayor’s political action committee, “we are talking about replacing turbines from Roosevelt’s administration while the convention center is arguing that money to build a hotel, park and ‘the nicest street in the city’ shouldn’t be considered excess funds.”
“People think conservative legislators won’t pass these bills because it would help liberal New Orleans,” Breithaupt said in an interview with Big Easy Magazine. “But this is not a partisan issue. This is common sense and it makes business sense to spend our tax dollars wisely on infrastructure.”
Breithaupt also pointed out that in spite of how it’s being portrayed by many media outlets, the mayor does not see this as a “tourism versus the city” issue. “It’s about assessing our priorities together, in partnership,” she stated.
All three bills are now up for debate in the House.
Jenn Bentley is a writer and editor originally from Cadiz, Kentucky. Her writing has been featured in publications such as The Examiner, The High Tech Society, FansShare, Yahoo News, and others. When she’s not writing or editing, Jenn spends her time raising money for Extra Life and advocating for autism awareness.