Analysis: In New Year, Louisiana Political Debates Unchanged

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — The new year is shaping up to look a lot like the old year, at least in Louisiana politics.

Another round of budget and tax disputes looms in 2018, with the same philosophical and political dividing lines that made it difficult to reach consensus in 2017. The same tax proposals that have been rejected by House Republicans are again being pushed by Gov. John Bel Edwards.

And many of the political talking points and decisions are being made with an eye toward 2019, the next round of statewide elections. Many officials — term-limited or otherwise — are jockeying for their next position, Edwards is running for re-election and Republicans are hoping they'll be able to unseat the Democratic governor.

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Edwards sought to strike an optimistic tone at his end-of-year news conference, touting an unemployment rate at its lowest percentage since 2008, economic development wins and a $120 million-plus state surplus from last year.

He also can point to a recent poll from Southern Media and Opinion Research that showed his approval rating at 65 percent, a number Edwards says "reaffirms that the people of Louisiana appreciate the moderate, balanced approach that we've taken."

But the governor doesn't have that same approval rating within the halls of the Louisiana Capitol, where Republicans hold the majority in the House and Senate and where Edwards is about to run into a buzz saw of criticism from opponents of his proposal to close Louisiana's latest budget gap with taxes.

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He's hoping to strike a compromise with legislative leaders, but he's philosophically at odds with some lawmakers who say state government is too large.

The governor believes the urgency of the "fiscal cliff" that hits July 1 may change some minds, since no one has offered a plan to cut $1 billion in general state tax dollars from the $28 billion operating budget. Officials estimate that shortfall could balloon to $4 billion in cuts with loss of federal matching dollars.

House Speaker Taylor Barras, a Republican, has described it as a "difficult exercise" to make the full amount in cuts, saying he doesn't see a way such reductions in spending could spare colleges, the TOPS free college tuition program and health care services.

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Edwards will have to propose a way to make such reductions to comply with the law. He owes a budget for the upcoming budget year to lawmakers in January, and he has to craft it with only the money available — without the $1 billion in temporary sales taxes that expire July 1.

The governor said his office will unveil that spending plan, with slashing he described as "so nasty" that lawmakers wouldn't agree to pass it, on Jan. 19. That's the same deadline he set to reach a tax deal with House GOP leaders.

If he hasn't reached an "agreement in principle" with House Republican leaders by then, Edwards said he won't call a February special session on taxes.

Lawmakers can't consider taxes in the regular session that runs from mid-March to early June. Without a February special session, that could leave lawmakers trying to craft a budget that strips the $1 billion through cuts or letting the spending plan linger unfinished until a last-minute June special session, weeks before the shortfall hits.

Edwards wants to raise enough taxes to offset the expiring ones. His proposals largely follow suggestions from a nonpartisan study group, ideas previously rejected in the House that would raise or maintain higher taxes for certain businesses and middle- and upper-income earners.

He said he's "flexible" if lawmakers have other ideas. But he's already facing pushback.

House Appropriations Chairman Cameron Henry criticized the deadline Edwards set, saying the governor is seeking agreement before proposals are vetted. The Metairie Republican posted on Facebook: "Gov. Edwards, once again, is trying to bypass the entire legislature to raise your taxes before one bill has been filed, one hearing has been held or one public comment has been made."

Rep. Blake Miguez, an Erath Republican, posted on Twitter: "Why does the Governor always focus on more taxes to solve LA's fiscal problems? Shouldn't he be more focused on the budget and ways to reform the spending process?"

-By Melinda Deslatte, Associated Press

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