Voters who go to the polls for the federal primary on Nov. 5 will find local propositions galore on the ballot, including 12 proposed amendments to the state Constitution. We make the following recommendations:
Amendment 1. This proposal will move fiscal legislative sessions from even- to odd-numbered years, giving newly elected governors and lawmakers the chance to act on campaign pledges immediately. Vote FOR Amendment 1.
Amendment 2. The so-called Stelly Plan is essentially an income tax/sales tax swap. The nonpartisan Public Affairs Research Council says 84 percent of Louisiana tax-filers would get a tax break right away and 96 percent of our tax structure would remain unchanged. Specifically, the plan would permanently remove state sales taxes on food for home consumption, residential utilities and prescription drugs. The plan also would lower the income tax bracket for lower incomes and raise it on some middle and all higher incomes. While not a wholesale reform of Louisiana's tax structure, the Stelly Plan is a step in the right direction in that income taxes are a more stable source of public revenue. Vote FOR Amendment 2.
Amendment 3. Currently, two-thirds of the state budget is protected from budget cuts by the constitution or state law. Meanwhile, state health care gets it in the neck. Amendment 3 would allow the governor and legislators to spread the deficit pain over a broader range of targets. Vote FOR Amendment 3.
Amendment 4. This amendment would require the termination of any state or local public employee convicted of a felony during employment after all appeals have been exhausted. Vote FOR Amendment 4.
Amendment 5. This amendment would give tax breaks for up to 10 years to developers of retirement communities. The breaks will help attract retiring baby-boomers, an economically powerful group not expected to draw heavily upon public services. Vote FOR Amendment 5.
Amendment 6. Created by the Legislature for cops in 1956, a state-funded monthly supplement of $300 now totals $70 million and includes firefighters, deputy sheriffs, constables and marshals. Justices of the peace and their constables get $75 monthly. The amendment would give constitutional protection to a minimum of $300 per month in supplemental pay. We support cops and firefighters, but this should be handled by statute -- not by the constitution. Vote AGAINST Amendment 6.
Amendment 7. This proposal would require that owner-occupied homes of seniors (65 and older) meet an income eligibility test only once to receive a special property tax break. Annual filings are currently required. Vote FOR Amendment 7.
Amendment 8. This proposal would authorize public colleges and universities to invest up to 50 percent of their endowment and other funds in stocks. Vote FOR Amendment 8
Amendment 9. This proposal would allow the state to invest up to 35 percent of the recently created Medicaid Trust Fund in stocks. Vote FOR Amendment 9.
Amendment 10. This cart-before-the-horse proposal is designed to relieve demand on Louisiana's four underwater aquifers by creating a trust fund to pay farmers for not using groundwater during droughts. It also would remove current prohibitions to donating public funds or loans to private entities. But no trust fund, guidelines or incentives for the proposed program have been developed. Vote AGAINST Amendment 10.
Amendment 11. Louisiana needs this tax break for the repair, conversion or storage of offshore drilling rigs to become more competitive with Texas. Vote FOR Amendment 11.
Amendment 12. The constitution bans non-physicians from running for coroner if a physician seeks the job. Amendment 12 would exempt the incumbent coroner of Livingston Parish, who is not an M.D. Vote AGAINST Amendment 12.
The move to privatize sewerage and water operations of the New Orleans Sewerage and Water Board had lots of detractors. We count ourselves among those troubled by parts of the plan. However, the board's hurried 6-5 vote last week to reject all bids without debate -- and, more importantly, without any backup plan -- smacked of precisely the kind of back-room political machinations that critics of privatization have leveled at proponents. Clearly, somebody stacked the deck, no doubt hoping to embarrass Mayor Ray Nagin, who by law chairs the S&WB.
There are plenty of familiar fingerprints at the scene: former Mayor Marc Morial appointed a majority of the board; his ally, Councilman Marlin Gusman, an S&WB member, voted with the Morial majority to deny citizens the right to speak on the proposals. So did Councilman Oliver Thomas, who conveniently deferred his own ordinance doubling sewer rates at the council's meeting the next day.
But the day of reckoning cannot be postponed forever. New Orleans faces nearly a billion dollars in federally mandated upgrades. One way or another, we must make the improvements and pay for them. Privatization could bring efficiencies that would cushion citizens against rate shock.
As the mayor ponders his next move, we suggest broadening the scope of possible changes -- starting with the structure of the board itself. Perhaps it's time to seek legislation further removing politics from the board by establishing a brand-new S&WB, one modeled after the Dock Board, whose members are nominated by leading community organizations, serve one term only, and do not include elected officials.
Meanwhile, the board should improve, not abandon, the privatization process and offer citizens alternatives to doubling the rates.