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Tax exemption passes in Senate bill

BATON ROUGE — After the Senate rejected his bid for a constitutional amendment to exempt diapers and tampons from the state sales tax, the bill’s sponsor, Sen. J.P. Morrell, found another way to get the job done.

Late Wednesday, Morrell, a Democrat from New Orleans, changed another bill to do essentially the same thing by statute. That bill passed 29-5.

The main difference, Morrell explained, is that voter approval of a constitutional amendment would have made the tax exemption permanent, while the Legislature could change or rescind its own approval at any time. The House still needs to consider the matter and could reject Morrell’s latest plan.

Morrell also proposed other bills that sought to acknowledge women’s rights and prohibit sending victims of sexual abuse to jail if they decline to testify against their accusers.

Morrell proposed a constitutional amendment to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment. But the Senate struck down that proposal by a clear 9-26 majority.

Nationwide, a majority of state legislatures has approved the Equal Rights Amendment since Congress passed it in 1972. Louisiana would have become the 38th state to ratify it. That is the required threshold to implement the amendment across the country.

Morrell’s bill to block the imprisonment of domestic violence and sex offense victims who decline to testify passed 36-0.

But the biggest drama came after lawmakers narrowly rejected Morrell’s first proposal for a constitutional amendment to exempt diapers and other feminine hygiene products from the state sales tax.

Twenty-one of the 33 senators supported it. But the bill failed to receive the two-thirds vote needed to advance to the lower chamber as a constitutional amendment.

Under the state constitution, necessities such as prescription drugs, groceries and utilities are already tax exempt.

Sen. Sharon Hewitt, R-Slidell, argued that the average woman would save only 27 cents a month from sales tax exemptions for feminine hygiene products and families with children in diapers would save only 65 cents a week.

“I don’t think it’s a game-changer,” Hewitt said, referring to the savings for the families. “But I think when you offset that, and you compare that to the cost to the state of $9.6 million and the great needs of this state and the money that we could be talking about in years to come about how to spend it, I just don’t think that this is a good way to go.”

Morrell delivered a fiery response to Hewitt, noting that the GOP-led Senate had just voted down the Equal Rights Amendment because some Republicans felt it threatened anti-abortion laws.

“Don’t sit up here and talk to us about how important babies are to this state,” Morrell said. “The level of hypocrisy is staggering.”

Earlier this week, the Senate passed a “fetal heartbeat” bill, which would ban abortions after six weeks in Louisiana. The bill now moves to the House for a vote. Gov. John Bel Edwards, a pro-life Democrat, has affirmed his support for the legislation.

Once Morrell’s bid for a constitutional amendment failed, he shifted strategy and sought the vote on creating the sales tax exemption legislatively, even though that would leave it more vulnerable to being repealed later.

Also on Wednesday, the Senate unanimously passed bills that would create initiatives to enhance post-secondary job skills training statewide and to conduct research on the effects of pornography on children.

That bill, sponsored by Sen. Gerald Long, R-Winnfield, would create a task force to study the negative effects of pornography. It was sent to the House after a 38-0 vote.

Meanwhile, the House rejected proposals by Rep. Walt Leger III, D-New Orleans, to combine governor and lieutenant governor candidates on one ticket.

Leger’s bill was blocked in a 36-64 vote. Rep. Blake Miguez, R-Erath, proposed an amendment to eliminate the position of lieutenant governor but withdrew it during the debate.

Another bill championed by Leger would have provided protection for a deceased person’s name and legacy. Labeled the Allen Toussaint Legacy Act after the famous New Orleans musician, it was rejected in a 44-47 vote. Some Republicans questioned the need for such protection.

Members of the House also demonstrated strong bipartisan support to back the governor’s pro-Israel course.

A proposal by Rep. Valarie Hodges, R-Denham Springs, which would allow state agencies to reject public bids and ban the lowest bidder if they boycotted Israel, was advanced 95-0. Other state legislatures are considering similar proposals.

Photo: Sen. J.P. Morrell changed his approach Wednesday after an initial defeat and won Senate approval to exempt diapers and tampons from the state sales tax. (Photo by Sarah Gamard / LSU Manship School News Service)

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