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La. gov seeking to expand sales tax to more items

Melinda Deslatte, Associated Press

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) -- Paying a lawn service to mow your yard? Storing your boat at a marina? Contracting with someone to repair your roof? Getting cable or satellite TV piped into your house?

Those services and many others could be subject to new Louisiana sales taxes, under ideas being weighed as part of Gov. Bobby Jindal's tax code rewrite.

As he seeks to eliminate Louisiana's personal and business income taxes, Jindal wants to increase the sales tax income flowing to staff coffers, to help offset the loss of billions in revenue.

The Jindal administration is sifting through ideas to charge sales taxes on more products and services. The plans would get rid of some of the current sales tax breaks and roll in services not currently subject to state sales taxes.

The Republican governor's point man on the tax code rewrite, Tim Barfield, calls the plan "broadening the base" of sales tax collections.

The idea, Barfield said, is that the more items that can be swept in to the existing 4 percent state sales tax, the smaller an overall sales tax increase would have to be to counterbalance the nearly $3 billion loss from scrapping income taxes.

"Expanding the base is the largest potential for new revenue," said Rep. Joel Robideaux, R-Lafayette, the chairman of the House's tax-writing committee who will handle much of Jindal's tax code revamp legislation.

The governor has only unveiled the general concepts of what he'll propose in the upcoming legislative session that begins in April, but he's not released details. Spokesman Sean Lansing said Jindal hasn't decided what services he'd like to include in widening the sales tax base or what breaks he wants to eliminate.

Louisiana exempts more than 150 items from state sales tax. The biggest breaks — $1 billion in exemptions on food for home consumption, residential utilities, prescription drugs and fuel — won't be touched under the governor's tax package, Barfield said.

But the state has hundreds of millions of dollars in other, smaller tax breaks that could be proposed for elimination.

Over the years, lawmakers have exempted from state sales tax the educational materials bought for school classrooms, the Bibles and songbooks bought by churches, specialty beads sold to Mardi Gras krewes, telecommunication services, storm shutters, museum admissions, tickets to the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, poultry farm equipment, bait and feed used to harvest crawfish and breastfeeding equipment.

As for sweeping in new services, some items aren't being considered. Barfield said Jindal won't propose taxing professional services, like doctors' visits or accounting work.

He said the administration has looked at Texas as a model to determine what types of products and services could be taxed, noting that the neighboring state is Louisiana's top competitor for many types of economic development projects.

"In Texas, consumers pay sales taxes on a variety of cable and satellite TV services, credit reporting services, data processing services, information services, custodial and janitorial services and even security services. For the most part, none of those things are taxed in Louisiana," said the Council for A Better Louisiana, which is tracking the governor's tax code rewrite.

Barfield said the administration is looking at the dollars that could be generated, the potential impact on the poor and the effect on businesses, trying to drum up new income without damaging an industry or harming low-income residents.

"We're playing a big balancing act," he said.