CATS claws at poor
Claiming the moral high ground is one of the more interesting justifications for endorsing a specially crafted, selectively financed, $180 million mass transportation tax that—if approved Saturday—will save, sustain and grow the Capital Area Transit System.
This line of thinking has several variations, but all generally revolve around the notion that the poor—and especially those poor in search a job so that they can, hopefully, no longer be poor—need a strong bus system in order to survive in a parish that's been designed almost exclusively with the automobile in mind. Yes, some will concede, there are some significant and not-so-significant flaws with the 10-year tax proposal, but the prospect of providing the poor with a viable mass transportation system trumps any shortcomings. In other words, the ends justify the means.
Among those adopting this viewpoint is Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Baton Rouge. The religious nonprofit—professing a mission to serve the poor and work with “Church and community for justice, peace and compassion in society”—has put out a six-page document outlining why it believes passage of a 10.6-mill property tax by voters in incorporated Baton Rouge, Baker and Zachary is a moral imperative.
Let's set aside the question of whether a branch of any tax-exempt religious organization should involve itself in a political tax election.
Conscientious people undoubtedly support the sentiment of assisting those in need, and are willing to dig into their own pockets to do so. Moreover, many, including myself, believe an efficient and robust mass transportation system, which includes more than just buses, benefits all East Baton Rouge Parish residents, regardless of socioeconomic background.
Where I differ from those staking out the moral high ground is that the means do matter, regardless of how noble the ends might be. There are a handful of reasons why this tax should be defeated; chief among them is that it unfairly targets the poor, while exempting major retailers and employers that greatly benefit from CATS service.
Passage of the tax is dependent upon the will of voters in incorporated Baton Rouge, a city with one of the highest poverty rates in the state: Nearly 59,000 of its more than 229,000 residents—or more than one out of every four—are living in poverty, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Much of the middle class and a majority of the wealthy live outside a taxing district chosen only so that this measure could get on the ballot in April.
Catholic Charities notes that while the poor will pay between $42 and $82 a year, that amount, in most cases, is less than one tank of gas. What the group fails to note in its six-page treatise is that many of those poor may pay as much as an additional $672 annually in bus fare (utilizing the discounted 31-day pass option) since they—more than any other demographic—rely on the bus system.
Meanwhile the Mall of Louisiana, which gets an express route if the tax passes, will pay exactly $0 since it's located outside incorporated Baton Rouge. Using conservative estimates, the Mall of Louisiana, if inside the district, would pay more than $300,000 in annual property taxes to support the bus system. Also outside the taxing district is Perkins Rowe, the row of retail behemoths along Siegen Lane and, shocking to many, Towne Center—located in the heart of Baton Rouge. Collectively, that's more than $1 million in lost tax revenue for CATS simply because the creators of this tax chose not to honor their pledge of creating a taxing district that captures all the area presently served by the bus system.
Then there's the soon-to-open L'Auberge Casino on River Road, which hopes CATS will shuttle employees to work. It hit the jackpot by locating outside the district, saving at least $371,000 annually in property taxes. Its two local competitors, however, do reside in the tax-paying district.
To be clear, don't fault any of these retail or gaming destinations for the exemptions, should the tax pass. Instead, fault those who—worried the mayor and Metro Council would not cover a $2 million one-time shortfall—made drastic alterations to the plan's tax district and finance model simply to get it on the April ballot, six months earlier than scheduled.
What's surprising is that some cheering this tax on the poor are also supportive of a move in the Legislature to exempt the poor from paying state income taxes. How is a CATS tax on the poor fair, yet taxing their income is regressive?
A fairer solution is the proposal that was to go before the voters in November. That, to me, is the tax package—which produces a healthy mass transit system while also lowering the individual tax burden for everyone—that should pass.
Regardless, I expect this morally flawed tax will pass on Saturday. It will pass because those who can least afford to pay it will choose to support it.
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