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Louisiana budget special session collapses without tax deal

June 5, 2018
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Rep. Bob Hensgens, R-Abbeville, standing, speaks to colleagues on the House floor on the final day of the special session, on Monday, June 4, 2018, in Baton Rouge, La. (AP Photo/Melinda Deslatte)

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Louisiana lawmakers failed to reach a tax deal by Monday’s deadline, cratering their second special session this year without agreement and passing a budget that would force deep cuts across state government next month.

The House and Senate couldn’t agree on what level of taxes to raise in the budget year that begins July 1, and the House ended at midnight in meltdown as lawmakers tried to scramble to bring up a sales tax bill that was opposed by House GOP leaders.

Gov. John Bel Edwards said he’ll call another special session to try to avoid steep slashing across the TOPS tuition program, college campuses, the child-welfare agency and public safety programs. He didn’t say when the session would start, but said it would end before the new budget year begins.

“We’ve just got a little more work to do. It’s going to take a little more time,” the Democratic governor said.

Disagreements about the size of the problem, the amount of money to raise and the approach to take couldn’t be bridged.

In the session’s final hour, Rep. Walt Leger, the House’s top-ranking Democrat, pleaded with his colleagues to approve a sales tax bill backed by the Senate to raise about $500 million. House Speaker Taylor Barras and House GOP leader Lance Harris opposed the measure, which raised more money than they supported, and the bill fell six votes short of the 70 needed to pass.

Harris’ smaller sales tax bill to raise $400 million only got 38 votes a short time later.

When Republican Rep. Julie Stokes sought to bring Leger’s bill back for a second consideration in the session’s final minute, Barras and Harris helped block the vote and let the clock run out, even as Leger shouted: “Vote for the bill. Avoid the special session!”

It’s unclear if the bill could have reached the two-thirds support needed to pass, but shouts and boos filled the House floor as Barras announced time had expired on the session.

Rep. Andy Anders, a Vidalia Democrat, told his colleagues: “I’m really disappointed in this whole process ... It’s hard to go home.”

Edwards had wanted lawmakers to replace $648 million in temporary taxes expiring July 1. But the governor couldn’t win support for the full amount in the Republican-led Legislature, and backed the Senate proposal in the session’s final days. Edwards placed blame for the session’s failure squarely on the House Republican leadership.

“It is a sad day for the state of Louisiana. You saw a minority in the House clearly let politics take priority over people. Our state deserves better,” he said.

Lawmakers were in their sixth special session since Edwards took office in 2016, all of the sessions involving Louisiana’s continuing financial problems, which have stretched over a decade. And they’re headed to a seventh one.

Nearly $1.4 billion in temporary taxes, mainly sales taxes, passed by lawmakers in 2015 and 2016 are expiring when the new financial year begins. Increases in other tax types lessen the gap, leaving Louisiana estimated to bring in $648 million less in general state tax dollars next year.

The centerpiece of tax negotiations involved the expiration of a 1 percent sales tax hike enacted two years ago that would drop the state sales tax rate to 4 percent in July. The House initially voted for Harris’ proposal to renew one-third of the expiring tax, to have a sales tax rate of 4.33 percent on July 1. The Senate backed a 4.5 percent rate.

The difference was 17 cents in sales taxes on every $100 of spending.

Democrats, particularly members of the Legislative Black Caucus, also held out until they got passage of an expansion of a tax break program for the working poor. And both the House and Senate agreed to scale back an individual income tax break that Louisiana allows for taxes paid to other states, raising about $34 million for next year.

Edwards vetoed an earlier version of the budget that reached his desk that is similar to what won final passage Monday night, saying the cuts were too catastrophic to enact.

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Follow Melinda Deslatte on Twitter at http://twitter.com/melindadeslatte

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