Edwards defends tax break changes, says program is generous

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Gov. John Bel Edwards defended his changes to Louisiana’s major industrial tax break program, telling hundreds of business leaders Thursday that the state remains generous and competitive to industry.

The Democratic governor’s comments came at an all-day business summit Edwards called in Baton Rouge, in which he encouraged business leaders to “stay engaged” and offer ideas to his administration.

But Edwards also refused to roll back limits enacted on the decades-old Industrial Tax Exemption Program, which provides property tax breaks up to 10 years for manufacturers. He said his changes created “a better balance.”

“Everything about our direction in the Industrial Tax Exemption Program is intended to prosper Louisiana,” the governor said. “We’re going to go to bat for our manufacturers. We’ll do that every day of the week because we need for them to succeed.”

Since taking office in 2016, Edwards limited the program to an 80 percent tax break over two five-year terms and required businesses to create or retain jobs with the projects seeking exemptions. In addition, local parish councils, police juries, sheriffs and school boards that stand to lose the property tax money can jettison the tax break applications.

The changes have provoked criticism from business groups, who described the regulations as confusing, complicated and damaging to economic development in a state with an already difficult-to-navigate business tax structure. Of particular complaint is the process for getting local governing authorities to sign off on the exemptions, which can involves multiple votes.

Edwards said he’d consider tweaks to streamline the process, but wouldn’t get rid of the local review as suggested by some Republican lawmakers and one of his GOP gubernatorial opponents, Baton Rouge businessman Eddie Rispone. The Edwards administration notes that 39 other states have similar property tax exemption programs requiring local resolutions of support.

“You should know that even with the changes we’ve made, our ITEP program remains one of the most generous in the country,” the governor said. “And it is certainly competitive.”

Edwards, seeking a second term on the October ballot, also talked more broadly about his tenure in office, ticking off what he considers his achievements in economic development and in health care. He reiterated his push for a teacher pay raise in the upcoming legislative session. And he touted his work to stabilize the state’s finances — after being introduced by LSU football coach Ed Orgeron, who showed video of Edwards throwing passes to LSU players.

Republicans slammed the summit as a taxpayer-financed campaign event. Edwards’ gubernatorial challenger Ralph Abraham, a third-term congressman, called the summit “a total farce,” saying in a statement that Edwards has shown “hostility toward job creators.”

The governor’s relationship with industry has been rocky. He’s clashed with business organizations over taxes and his unsuccessful proposal to raise Louisiana’s minimum wage, among other areas.

Edwards’ office said the summit was aimed at linking business leaders with government officials, after the governor held closed-door meetings with industry officials around Louisiana. Panel discussions were held throughout the day.


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