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Sunday, May 26, 2019

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Should La. raise smoking age to 21?

Should La. raise smoking age to 21?

State lawmakers set to decide.

BATON ROUGE -- The Louisiana Legislature is convening again in five weeks, and while the focus of the 2019 regular session will be on finances, legislators also have been prefiling bills that address other issues, such as raising the legal age to smoke, loosening the homestead tax exemption and criminalizing being a jerk behind the wheel.

Lawmakers say they don’t expect much as legislators seeking re-election in the fall will shy away from controversy going into the final session before the Oct. 12 election. Voters will select all 105 members in the Louisiana House of Representatives and 39 state senators as well as the governor and all other agency heads.

But as they leave the lower chamber, a couple of the representatives who will be attending their final session because of term limits are going with bills that could make a significant impact.

Baton Rouge Republican Rep. Steve Carter says he wants to challenge a sacred cow by giving local jurisdictions more sway over the homestead exemption, which has been politically untouchable since enacted in 1934.

And former smoker Frank Hoffmann, the West Monroe Republican representative in charge of the House Health and Welfare committee, wants to raise to 21 years the legal age for smoking in Louisiana.

While the main legislative task every year is to approve a balanced budget, state law limits legislative action on fiscal matters, like raising taxes, to regular sessions held in odd-numbered years. Lawmakers are limited to five bills that are not fiscally oriented.

Lawmakers have convened 10 times -- for months at a time -- since 2016, mostly to try to overcome huge deficits in the state budgets. Seven of the meetings weren’t scheduled and had to be specially called. After the budget was stabilized is the session that ended June 26, lawmakers have pretty much stayed out of Baton Rouge.

The 2019 regular session of the Legislature begins at noon on April 8 and must conclude by 6 p.m. June 6, which also is the 75th anniversary of D-Day landings in Normandy, France, during World War II.

Of the 60 bills filed as of Tuesday morning, 21 deal with retirement benefits for state and local employees -- one of government’s largest expenses.

Gov. John Bel Edwards has made increasing teacher’s pay the cornerstone of his still-forming legislative agenda. Teachers in Oklahoma, West Virginia and Arizona went out on strike last year to press their lawmakers into approving long-overlooked pay increases in those states. Edwards, whose wife was a schoolteacher and whose 2015 gubernatorial campaign attracted early support from teacher unions, wants a $1,000 per year pay raise for teachers and increases support personnel.

Legalizing betting on sporting events, like football and baseball games, also is expected to dominate major stretches of time while legislators are in session. Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court rolled back a national law that essentially banned sports betting in all but a few locations. Mississippi, whose casinos directly compete with Louisiana’s, anticipated the decision, setting up the legal and regulatory framework to begin in August allowing wagering on sporting events at casinos.

And there will be myriad other issues raised.

New Orleans Democratic Sen. JP Morrell, a father of three youngsters, wants to exempt the purchase of diapers from sales taxes.

And state Rep. Sam Jenkins, D-Shreveport, filed legislation, House Bill 6, that creates the crime of aggressive driving that would send to jail speeders, drivers following too closely, those turning without signaling or performing any one of a dozen poor driving habits. First offense could lead to driver’s license suspension, a fine up to $500 and up to six months in prison. A second offense would carry heavier penalties.

A few years ago, Rep. Carter shouldered the unpopular task of trying to raise the gasoline tax to pay for road maintenance. Though supported by a business community wanting to ease traffic tie-ups that effect commerce, the legislation died from lack of support.

This year, Carter wants to attempt to give local governments more flexibility over the state’s homestead exemption to taxes owed local jurisdictions. The constitutionally protected tax break has long been considered untouchable -- a sure path to defeat at the polls for any politician attempting to modify it in any way.

“I know it’s a sacred cow. But unless you put it out there, you’ll never know what you can do,” Carter said. “I’m only trying to help the locals. Whenever they need something, they have to come to (the Legislature) for permission. Instead them coming to us all the time, why don’t we give them the opportunity to generate some revenues from their own communities?”

The Louisiana constitution forgives 10 percent of the fair market value of a taxpayer’s primary home, up to $75,000 of the assessment for property taxes, which go to fund local governments. The amount a taxpayer can save through the 85-year-old homestead exemption varies depending on the millage rates of a jurisdiction, but the average is about $750 to $800 per year.

House Bill 12 would essentially ask voters for a change in the constitution that would allow parish governing authorities to alter the amount of the homestead exemption in their jurisdiction, if approved by the electors of a parish, to fund government projects.

Constituents, like LSU, are approaching him to use one of his five bills on their behalf, Carter said this issue was dear enough to him that he used one of its slots.

Hoffmann felt the same way about his measure raising the age for tobacco use.

“It’s one of my five bills. It is important and it’s the right thing to do for Louisiana,” Hoffmann said. A Louisiana Department of Health study showed a corresponding trend between smoking and health care. Lowering the smoker’s age would improve health, which corresponds to lower costs.

House Bill 38 would raise the minimum age to buy or possess cigarettes and other tobacco products from 18 to 21 years old. Retailers would be forbidden from selling tobacco products to anyone under the age of 21.

“A lot of statistics show that 18-year-olds are still physically maturing and if they don’t start (smoking) by the time they’re 21, then they will end up never smoking,” Hoffmann said.

California, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Oregon, Hawaii and Maine have raised the tobacco age to 21 as have about 430 localities, including San Antonio, Boston, New York and Washington, D.C.