Changing the rules
|Will a measure altering the governance of CATS make the agency more businesslike or give the board too much power?|
As the co-chairs of Taxbusters, Glenda Pollard and Elizabeth Dent attempted to rally white conservatives to beat back the transit tax. Based on the election returns April 21, they did OK, although votes from the more liberal, minority districts in the low-turnout election were enough to carry the day, at least in Baker and Baton Rouge; the tax was crushed in Zachary.
Throughout a lengthy lunchtime conversation at Maxwell's Market on Corporate Boulevard, the two women expound on the evils of high taxes, the legislative process and, especially, the interfaith coalition Together Baton Rouge, which pushed for the transit measure. At one point, Maxwell's owner Ron Lewis walks by and demands to know how it could be legal to tax his store yet not Towne Center across the street. (Towne Center is outside the city limits.) Clearly, the feelings around this transit tax remain raw.
Tax supporters would like to see proponents and opponents put aside their differences and come together for the good of the parish. But Pollard and Dent are having none of it. Their new fight is over governance reforms that would remove the Metro Council's veto power over the Capital Area Transit System's operations, and require most of the CATS board members to be drawn from a pool nominated by 13 civic and business organizations (see sidebar below).
At press time, the measure, which Dent and Pollard lobbied against for weeks, had passed the Louisiana Senate and was headed back to the House, which already had passed a different version, for possible concurrence. Supporters say the measure will allow CATS to be run more like a business, but skeptics fear giving the board too much power.
Together Baton Rouge contends a revamped CATS board will be more accountable, and have more eyes watching it, than any other unelected board in the parish. And they have a point; TBR has publicized a specific timeline of reforms to which they intend to hold the system.
But at the end of the day, as with other such boards, an aggrieved citizen will have few options other than showing up at a public meeting and complaining. Regardless of what happens with CATS, the debate over its board raises the question of whether folks who never have to go before the voters should ever conduct the public's business.
Critics sometimes say that giving unelected boards authority over public funds amounts to “taxation without representation.” That phrase, a rallying cry during the American Revolution, is not in the U.S. Constitution. The state's constitution says “the power of taxation shall be vested in the legislature, shall never be surrendered, suspended, or contracted away, and shall be exercised for public purposes only.”
The Legislature has a great deal of latitude in exercising that power, says David R. Cassidy, a tax attorney with Breazeale, Sachse & Wilson. Cassidy tracked down a relevant 1969 Louisiana case involving a harbor district that seems to have been set up much like the proposed new governance structure for CATS.
“These plaintiffs, and the class they represent, have absolutely no choice in the selection of the board members who have the right to tax them,” the court said. “This is indeed taxation without representation. Four of the five members are selected from a panel of names submitted by private organizations completely beyond and immune to the elective process.”
However, the Louisiana Supreme Court reversed the trial court's decision, stating that the harbor district primarily was an administrative body with limited taxing power. The high court says governing authorities can't give Joe Blow the authority to levy and collect a tax as he sees fit, but they can allow Joe to administer the use of a tax that has been properly authorized.
Whether this sort of delegation of power is a good idea or not is a matter of opinion; many people have issues with the local parks and library boards, which also are unelected. On the other hand, many of those same people are just as critical of the parish school board and the Metro Council itself, which are directly elected.
Janet Howard, CEO of the New Orleans-based Bureau of Governmental Research, says in some cases, direct voter input can make it harder to run a unit of government like a business. BGR recently recommended eliminating elected officials from the city's Sewerage & Water Board and limiting City Council authority over rate adjustments.
A NEW POWER STRUCTURE
A proposal to change the governance structure of the Capital Area Transit System's board would allow the mayor of Baker and the mayor-president of East Baton Rouge Parish to make one appointment each. The Metro Council would make the rest of the appointments from candidates submitted by the following people and organizations. The council would have the right to add more organizations to the list.
The Baton Rouge Area Chamber
Together Baton Rouge
The Center for Planning Excellence
The Louisiana Hospital Association
The chancellor of LSU
The chancellor of Southern University
The chancellor of Baton Rouge Community College
The Arc of Baton Rouge
The Louisiana Bankers Association
Visit Baton Rouge
The Baton Rouge Black Chamber of Commerce
The Louisiana AFL-CIO
“What you're trying to do is set up an institution that's pretty much insulated from politics,” Howard explains. Under the current system, the New Orleans City Council has no responsibility for the operations of the sewer and water system but plenty of political pressure to keep rates low, often killing or delaying rate increases despite pressing needs.
Last year, CATS chief executive Brian Marshall asked the Metro Council for one of two things: Either give us more money, or let us cut seldom-used routes. The council said no to both requests; and their refusal to let CATS make a business decision, and the fact that peer cities don't have political bodies meddling in the operations of their transit systems, supports the idea of giving the CATS board some measure of independence, Marshall says.
The Metro Council is likely to eliminate a $3 million subsidy it has provided in the past. It will retain the right to put people on the board, but Councilman Scott Wilson says that's not enough accountability for a body that's about to start drawing 10.6 mills a year from every property owner in Baton Rouge and Baker.
“If CATS wants to dictate routes and things like that, that's fine,” Wilson says. “[But] that board has to be accountable to somebody. That's taxpayer money.”
Wilson isn't sure what a better accountability system might look like, but suggests more engagement from the public would help.
“People in this parish have got to step forward,” he says. “It's hard sometimes to find people who want to volunteer to be on these boards. You can't sit back and complain about it unless you get in the game.”
State Sen. Dan Claitor, a Baton Rouge Republican, says he was able to remove a provision that would have given the CATS board expropriation power. He opposes taking away the Metro Council's veto power, and says the information he's seen shows that CATS should be able to fix its problems now that it has a significant dedicated funding stream, and that governance changes aren't needed.
One change Claitor considered pushing for, and one that he thinks should be considered for unelected boards statewide, is the creation of a mechanism that would allow the voters to recall board members that they feel haven't managed the taxpayers' money properly. The recall petitions would be held to the same standards as the general election code, which generally requires signatures from a third of qualified voters in a given area before holding a recall election.
“That would at least be a mechanism that people could pull the trigger on,” Claitor says. “It wouldn't be a hair trigger; it would be a trigger you would have to pull with both hands.”
Pollard and Dent say the proposed law would prevent the council from selecting the “best” candidates by limiting the slate to people put forward by a bunch of “liberal” groups. Claitor considered trying to add other groups, such as Taxbusters and the conservative Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, to the list of organizations, but decided not to because he didn't feel he could support the bill even with changes. (The Metro Council would have the ability to add new groups, assuming a House amendment remains intact.)
Pollard and Dent say they're not interested; they don't want to condone the new structure. Pollard is certain a Taxbusters rep would be outvoted on the board anyway, overwhelmed by the “groupthink” of the other board members.
But they admit they don't have a better proposal, nor do they argue that the Metro Council has done a good job making appointments or using its veto power in the past.
“We're volunteers,” Dent says, not elected officials with a responsibility to propose solutions. However, they hint that they're trying to organize a conservative citizens group, sort of an alternative to the Baton Rouge Tea Party, that would be proactive in pushing for change.
“Maybe it's our time,” Dent says. “We're not going to go away.”
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