- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 19, 2016

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - Lawmakers in the House are split on whether Louisiana’s local tax assessors should get car allowances on top of their salaries.

A day after the House narrowly agreed to authorize the payments for assessors in four parishes, lawmakers in the chamber reversed course Tuesday, rejecting the same type of allowance for four others.

The bills would allow assessors in specified parishes to receive car allowances up to 15 percent of their annual salaries. The proposals are provoking strong debate over how much elected officials are paid amid an ongoing economic downturn in Louisiana.

Supporters said assessors already are paid other travel expenses and the car allowances would replace those costs. They said the measures require that assessors must pay the car allowances from their own budgets without additional money from state or other local government agencies.

“It’s an optional program,” said Rep. Major Thibaut, D-New Roads, sponsor of one of the measures that passed Monday. “I don’t see this as an additional expense. Should the expenses in their office have a dramatic increase, they’re going to have to answer to the voters.”

Opponents of the car allowances said the 15 percent could add up to more than $20,000 a year for people who earn six-figure salaries - on top of annual 4 percent pay raises assessors have been getting in recent years.

For example, the Lafayette Parish assessor’s salary is nearly $157,000. In addition, assessors get a 10 percent personal expense allowance, boosting the Lafayette assessor to more than $172,000 in compensation each year, according to a financial analysis of one bill. The maximum 15 percent car allowance could be $23,500 or more.

After four years of a 15 percent car allowance, an assessor could pay for a Porsche luxury vehicle, several lawmakers said.

“When did we get into the business of buying public officials assets? People go to jail for that,” Rep. Lance Harris, R-Alexandria, said in a fiery speech objecting to the car allowances. “We’ve lost sight of what government’s role is in this state.”

Rep. Cedric Glover, D-Shreveport, said the average per capita income in Madison Parish - where one of the assessors is proposed for the car allowance - is $13,089 a year.

“If this passes, the tax assessor will end up with a car allowance that’s more than what the average person in Madison makes,” Glover said.

Rep. Rob Shadoin, R-Ruston, sponsor of the bill rejected on Tuesday, said assessors don’t believe the money is a pay raise because they already get reimbursement for vehicle expenses. He noted that assessors in five parishes already have state approval for a car allowance.

“I don’t know why we’ve got a bee in our bonnet at this particular point in time. This is not paving new ground,” Shadoin said.

The House voted 50-48 against Shadoin’s bill, which would have covered assessors in LaSalle, Red River, Union and Claiborne parishes.

On Monday, however, lawmakers there backed a car allowance bill covering assessors in Assumption, Iberville and Pointe Coupee parishes with a 57-34 vote and a similar bill for the Lafayette Parish assessor with a 53-36 vote. Those bills await hearings in the Senate.


Follow Melinda Deslatte on Twitter at https://twitter.com/melindadeslatte

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