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Another day, more stalled bills in Louisiana special session

February 23, 2018

Rep. Larry Bagley, R-Stonewall, asks questions about a Medicaid bill while Rep. Dodie Horton, R-Haughton listens during a hearing of the House Health and Welfare Committee on Thursday, Feb. 22, 2018, in Baton Rouge, La. (AP Photo/Melinda Deslatte)

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Louisiana’s special session careened further off course Thursday, with nearly every major bill stalled, including tax proposals to close the state’s budget gap and legislation House Republican leaders want in exchange for tax votes.

The inaction raised questions about whether the budget-balancing session will produce anything to address a nearly $1 billion budget gap or if the fractious House is so divided that gridlock is all it can achieve.

Rep. Jack McFarland, a Winnfield Republican, said of the session: “It’s in jeopardy. Everything we’ve been discussing about reform and revenue, and all of a sudden nobody’s willing to pass it on either side.”

Republican House Speaker Taylor Barras seems unable to corral enough GOP support to move proposals he backs. Among House Republicans who will vote for taxes, they disagree with Democrats on which tax types should be used to draw new revenue for state coffers. And efforts by Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards to broker a deal have been fruitless so far.

For two days, lawmakers have pulled bills from consideration without votes amid concerns they can’t pass.

“I’d like to vote for something. I’m tired of this,” a frustrated Rep. Larry Bagley, a Republican from Stonewall, said during a House Health and Welfare Committee hearing.

Bills shelved without votes Thursday would enact work and cost-share requirements on some Medicaid recipients. Barras told Edwards the proposals were among a list of “budget reforms” required to pass to win GOP support for taxes. But even with Edwards’ support for some of the ideas, certain Republicans questioned the wisdom of passing them.

Edwards has been holding closed-door meetings with lawmakers in hopes of breaking through the impasse.

“The governor still believes they can come to an agreement on some path forward,” said Edwards spokesman Richard Carbo.

By Thursday night, Barras announced that a deal was being negotiated, with “new options” on taxes. The House adjourned until Sunday as lawmakers continued to work behind the scenes.

“I think we are making great progress,” Barras said.

In debate Thursday over the work requirements proposal, lawmakers questioned the multimillion-dollar price tag estimated to build the computer infrastructure to track Medicaid recipients to make sure they’re meeting the requirement.

“We’re going to spend millions of dollars on a software system to kick people off health care?” asked Rep. Dustin Miller, an Opelousas Democrat.

Health and Welfare Chairman Frank Hoffmann, a West Monroe Republican, said his aim wasn’t to remove people from health care but to encourage “productive work and community engagement” that he said would help “people to stay healthy.” Edwards’ chief lawyer, Matthew Block, sitting at the table with Hoffmann, agreed.

Rep. Dodie Horton, a Haughton Republican, said that although she agreed with the “spirit of this bill,” more data was needed to analyze it.

After more questions and public testimony in opposition, Hoffmann pulled the measure from consideration. Other Medicaid proposals later were shelved, too.

Edwards called the 17-day special session to close a $994 million shortfall in the financial year that begins July 1 caused by expiring temporary taxes passed by lawmakers. The governor wants replacement taxes passed, saying that without them, deep cuts would be forced on the TOPS college tuition program, health services and public safety spending.

The main approach favored by House GOP leaders includes permanent renewal of one-quarter of the expiring 1 percent sales tax, along with elimination of some sales tax breaks, to raise an estimated $300 million a year.

Louisiana’s current state sales tax rate is 5 percent. It drops to 4 percent on July 1. The bill by Rep. Stephen Dwight, a Lake Charles Republican, would move the rate to 4.25 percent.

Democrats, particularly members of the Legislature’s Black Caucus, prefer income tax changes. They want to advance a proposal cutting tax breaks for middle- and upper-income taxpayers who itemize deductions on their income tax returns.

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

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