By: By Stephanie Riegel
Prepared by the Greater Baton Rouge Business Report October 6, 2020
Jason DeCuir has never been elected to public office, but the tax attorney and consultant has been as involved in key discussions about Louisiana’s tax policy over the past decade as any elected official.
An expert in state and local tax policy, or SALT, DeCuir, 45, earned his stripes while in Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration, playing wingman to former revenue secretary Tim Barfield, who had the unenviable task of trying to sell the former governor’s ultimately doomed plan to eliminate state income taxes.
DeCuir went on to serve on a statewide commission that laid out a blueprint for streamlining the state’s Byzantine tax code, while also advising the powerful Louisiana Association of Business and Industry on tax issues that impact its members.
Earlier this year, he was tapped by the Legislature’s conservative, Republican leadership to head a task force to map out a policy agenda to help the state’s ailing economy.
And in August, he announced he was leaving Ryan, the global tax consulting firm whose local office he ran for the past four years, to take over Baton Rouge-based Advantous Consulting, which he plans to grow into a regional powerhouse that advises businesses on how to navigate the complex tax systems of their local and state jurisdictions.
That DeCuir has established himself as the go-to guy on tax policy for Baton Rouge’s conservative, mostly Republican business community is impressive by any measure. It’s all the more remarkable, considering he comes from a Creole family with Democratic political ties and was, himself, a registered Democrat as recently as 2007, when he ran unsuccessfully for the state Senate.
But DeCuir is no longer a Democrat. Though he doesn’t belong to any political party—he’s registered as an independent—he is a decidedly conservative, self-described pragmatist, with a pro-business approach to fiscal policy.
“I am very much a believer that if Louisiana can get its tax structure in order and make it more competitive nationally then we will be able to attract the type of industries and sectors that we need to create jobs,” he says. “When you do that, the revenues will follow.”
No one disagrees that Louisiana needs to get its fiscal house in order. But the devil is in the details, which is where differences of opinion come in, and there are those who take issue with DeCuir’s approach because it advocates, to put it simply, for incentivizing business development at the expense of cash-starved state and local governments.
Even those who disagree with DeCuir philosophically, however, like him and give him credit for becoming one of the most powerful and respected voices of the business community on one of the issues that matters to it most.
“I tip my hat to him for putting himself in the middle of every tax conversation at the state level since 2013,” says Jan Moller, who heads the left-leaning Louisiana Budget Project, which often views tax policy from a different perspective than does DeCuir. “He has become as powerful as you can be, without being an elected official, in helping set the agenda of the Louisiana Legislature.”
Ambitious and confident
Those who know DeCuir attribute his success to his intelligence, skills and temperament—a sharp mind, relentless drive, outgoing personality—and considerable expertise in SALT policy, which has come from years of experience and, not one, but three post-graduate degrees.
His father says he was the most competitive in a family of three competitive boys, who all played sports at Catholic High—soccer and football in Jason DeCuir’s case—received scholarships to good colleges and prestigious graduate programs, and went on to become lawyers with high-profile careers.
The elder DeCuir chalks up his son’s drive to a couple of factors: a middle child syndrome, which motivated him to try to distinguish himself from his brothers, and a family ethos that stressed discipline, hard work and the importance of education.
Older brother Winston DeCuir Jr. describes his younger brother as ambitious and exceedingly confident, as when he decided to run for state Senate without first trying his hand at a school board or city council race.
His wife, Marlene, says he is a “highly intelligent,” Type A personality, who gets up early, works late and excels at most things he does, dance maneuvers notwithstanding.
Barfield, with whom he worked closely at the state level, calls him a hustler.
“Some of his critics would describe him as ADHD because he has so much going on,” Barfield says. “But he just has this tremendous capacity and he knows how to hustle.”
It was that capacity that enabled DeCuir—after completing his undergraduate degree at Howard University in Washington, D.C., where he was a star placekicker on the football team—to earn an MBA from Louisiana Tech and a law degree from LSU, at one point working on both programs at the same time.
He would go on to clerk for U.S. District Judge Frank Polozola and then work as an associate at Baton Rouge’s venerable silk-stocking firm, Taylor Porter. While there, he was exposed to tax law and found his passion. Taylor Porter encouraged him to apply to Georgetown’s graduate program in tax law and offered to pick up the tab if he continued working for them remotely.
“I know it sounds funny, but I felt like I had landed,” DeCuir says. “I am a student of SALT policy and I love it—not just the law but the philosophy behind tax law and how states derive their tax laws.”
‘A bridge too far’
While deep dives into SALT policy satisfy DeCuir’s considerable appetite for intellectual stimulation, the conversations it enables him to have with elected officials and business leaders—the movers and shakers—is what energizes him. He likes the dynamic of running the discussion, bringing power brokers together, and is good at it. It’s a skill set he honed during his three years at the Louisiana Department of Revenue during the Jindal administration, which he joined in 2013.
At the time—and not for the first time—state leaders were trying to get serious about revising Louisiana’s tax code, which is complex, anachronistic, regressive and anti-competitive. The opportunity to be on the front lines of fiscal reform, to have a real seat at the table, was too good to pass up, DeCuir recalls, so he left the private sector for government work.
But when Jindal got serious in 2015 about entering the 2016 presidential race, the priorities in the administration shifted from trying to fix the tax code in a way that might best help the state to trying to make Louisiana’s long shot candidate stand out in a crowded field of conservatives trying to outdo one another. The result was a plan that called for abolishing the state’s income tax, raising its sales taxes and eliminating more than 400 exemptions.
Barfield was the public face of the plan but DeCuir was his No. 2 and did a lot of the heavy lifting, which involved setting up stakeholder meetings around the state with business leaders and legislators. It was a hard sell, especially when it became clear the plan would not be revenue neutral, as Jindal had hoped. In the end, the plan died before the legislative session even began.
Barfield calls the experience “probably one of the biggest mistakes of my life,” but says it’s not DeCuir’s fault.
“It had nothing to do with Jason,” Barfield says. “He did a yeoman’s job of getting out there, interfacing with so many entities. But if the willpower and political appetite aren’t there, you can’t do anything.”
Public Affairs Research Council President Robert Travis Scott, who had a front row seat for the whole fiasco, says it’s not fair to blame anyone but the former governor’s presidential ambitions for a policy that was fundamentally flawed.
“They were trying their best to do what the governor wanted them to do because the governor was set on running for president,” Scott says. “He wanted to make a statement and it was just a bridge too far.”
DeCuir won’t say what he actually thought of the plan except that he agreed with some aspects of it and disagreed with others.
“At the end of the day, decisions were made and that is the package that was put forth,” he says. “You can throw me in any room and I’m going to get along with people. But I’m not afraid to say what’s on my mind. … They respected the knowledge and expertise I brought to the table and I’m thankful he gave me that opportunity.”
Sales tax frustrations
The experience proved invaluable for DeCuir and established him in business and policy circles as an expert—as well as a loyalist, willing to take one for the team. Though the Jindal plan was flawed, there were elements in it that many in the business community liked, and DeCuir had proved in countless meetings that he knew his stuff and talked their talk.
“He is a tax genius,” says Stephen Waguespack, president and CEO of LABI, which has both retained DeCuir to lobby against corporate tax increases at the Legislature and relied on the pro bono advice he has given over the past four years chairing its issues committee on taxation. “Calling him a lobbyist sells him short. When you look around the state, public or private sector, at who is respected across all forums for being a great tax mind, I think Jason DeCuir is at the top of the list.”
Though the Jindal plan had failed, fiscal reform efforts continued under Gov. John Bel Edwards. In 2016, DeCuir was tapped to serve on the legislatively created HCR-11 task force, a bipartisan committee that went through the tax code in painstaking detail and came out with a series of good-government recommendations that were well-received across the political spectrum, at least in theory.
DeCuir did not agree with all of them. But several of the issues he had prioritized made the final list, including eliminating corporate franchise and inventory taxes and creating a unified and centralized sales tax system, which is no small thing in a state where each of the 64 parishes has its own sales tax system.
Taking advantage of the system?
While DeCuir is well-known locally for his public sector work, his bread and butter is a thriving private sector tax consulting business. For four years, he ran the local office of Ryan, the international firm that advises some of the biggest companies in the world on tax issues. In August, he decided to go out on his own, acquiring a majority share in a local tax consulting firm, Advantous Consulting, whose founding principal, lobbyist Don Allison, was retiring.
Tax consulting firms, which are different than CPA firms, are relatively new and have sprung up over the past 20 years to help companies navigate the complex tax regulations they encounter from one state to another. Such firms have been criticized for aggressively lobbying for tax incentives like Quality Jobs, Opportunity Zones and Industrial Tax Exemptions, which arguably help business at the expense of state and local governments.
“I get worried about people who get to work both sides of the street,” says Greg LeRoy of Good Jobs First, a left-leaning policy organization in Washington, D.C. “Anyway, your ITEPs and other big tax giveaways almost never determine where companies locate because state and local taxes are only 1.8% of their cost structure anyway and you already have infrastructure and raw materials in the ground. That’s why they’re there.”
DeCuir, however, takes issue with any accusations that he’s taking advantage of the system. He is upfront about being a registered lobbyist and says that if experts in one field can’t advocate and advise lawmakers on the needs of that sector, how would anything get done?
“I don’t buy into that rhetoric,” he says. “People try to say, ‘Jason shaped that.’ Well, last I looked I haven’t voted on anything. I haven’t signed anything into law. Am I down there telling what my beliefs are? Do I understand the industry and the trade that I’m in? Yes. I’m not just a practitioner but I also fit into the policy bucket.”
That may be. But sometimes the line between practice and policy gets very blurry, as when DeCuir and former lawmaker Joel Robideaux teamed up earlier this year to bid on a state contract worth up to $5 million to process applications for a grant program designed to help small businesses.
The program was created with $300 million in federal dollars Congress had originally earmarked for state and local governments to help cover COVID-19-related expenses. But the Legislature, which was taking its cues from the Legislative Economic Recovery Task Force—chaired by DeCuir—decided to redirect the money to small business.
Though DeCuir and Robideaux, who also served on the task force, are not in business together or in the business of processing applications for anything, they bid on the contract anyway. They didn’t win, though they were one of two finalists.
The deal raised more than a few eyebrows around the Capitol, though DeCuir insists there was nothing unethical about his team’s proposal and says the task force never specifically recommended creating the grant program.
“That’s a false narrative,” he says. “We never created that program. We didn’t author or push it and it’s not in our package.”
Focused on growing firm
With the Legislature once again in an October special session, DeCuir is spending a lot of his time at the Capitol. He’s also focused on growing his new business. Advantous is well-known around Baton Rouge. DeCuir believes there’s a lot of opportunity to grow the firm, especially as SALT policy becomes increasingly complex around the country.
DeCuir plans to grow the firm by expanding into new service lines like appeals and dispute resolution, where he has a particular expertise. He also plans to grow geographically, first into Mississippi and Alabama, where he already has a strong foothold, and eventually into other Southern states.
He has a lot on his plate but he also feels compelled to get a lot done. Though his father, at 73, is still healthy and practicing law, his uncle and grandfather both died before they were 50.
“My running joke is that the DeCuirs don’t live past 50,” he says. “It does make you think, because the next day is not guaranteed and you want to give it your best and be proud and respectful because you don’t know when the last day will be here.”