Analysis: Louisiana Tax Debate Gets Tied To Other GOP Ideas

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Tax policy won't cause the only disputes in Louisiana's upcoming special session. Lawmakers may squabble just as much over a package of spending control ideas sought by House Republicans as a trade for any taxes they may support.

Several of the proposals have been offered in previous legislative sessions, only to be spurned or shelved amid criticisms, including suggestions they'll do nothing to rein in spending or will shift costs elsewhere.

Though they've become part of the broader tax negotiations in the special session that opens Monday, that opposition remains.

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But House GOP leaders have issued an ultimatum of sorts, saying the ideas must be included in any budget-gap-closing package or taxes to solve the $1 billion shortfall looming July 1 won't pass. Gov. John Bel Edwards included the proposals in parameters he set for the special session, though the Democratic governor hasn't committed to back the full list.

When House Speaker Taylor Barras sent the proposals to the governor last month, he described them as "priorities that I and a majority of House members will require to be part of a final solution."

The proposals would tighten limits on annual spending growth, create a new website called Louisiana Checkbook to track state spending and add new cost-share and work requirements for some Medicaid patients.

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The measures have become a sort of rallying cry for House Republicans, who see the proposals as curbing growth in government.

"I will not consider any type of revenue unless it has some type of budget reform," said Rep. Johnny Berthelot, a Gonzales Republican. "All these temporary taxes, that's not going to fix our issues. We need budget reform."

The budget shortfall stems from the expiration of temporary taxes passed by lawmakers in 2016. Taxes can't be considered in the regular session that begins in mid-March, so Edwards called the 17-day special session hoping to persuade the majority-Republican Legislature to enact replacement taxes to close the gap.

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The spending control ideas sought by House Republicans wouldn't necessarily chip away at the immediate budget hole, but supporters say they could lower Louisiana's costs long-term.

"If you can control government spending, then we don't have to have these conversations over and over and over again" about shortfalls, said Rep. Blake Miguez, an Erath Republican.

Even if the governor gets on board, it's unclear if the measures can win enough support for passage, either because of concerns raised by lawmakers or criticism from lobbying groups.

For example, Edwards backed a bill in 2016 that would have charged some Medicaid patients copays for certain health services. The proposal went nowhere because of opposition. Critics said it would discourage poor patients from seeking needed services. The strongest criticism came from hospitals and other health providers who say copays are the equivalent of cuts to their Medicaid payments because they're unenforceable.

Senate Health and Welfare Chairman Fred Mills has the same concerns again.

"Unless somebody can give me some comfort that it's not a provider cut, I'm against it," said Mills, a Republican from Parks. "Without a shadow of a doubt, every provider group that has called me is in opposition. I don't care how you dress it. It's a provider cut."

The governor said he supports requiring some non-elderly adult Medicaid enrollees to work or lose their coverage, but a similar idea fizzled when proposed in the Senate last year. Opponents say the restrictions penalize poor people who may be unable to find employment, and they say it can drive up health costs when people get booted from Medicaid and turn to uninsured care that is more expensive for the state.

Sen. J.P. Morrell, a New Orleans Democrat who chairs the Senate tax committee, points to one complication of passing the spending control wish list pushed by House Republicans: Barras so far has focused on negotiating with Edwards.

"He's provided a list of legislative ideas as an ultimatum to the governor. What he should have been doing is negotiating with Democrats and moderate Republicans about whether they're OK with it," Morrell said. "Just because the governor's OK with it doesn't mean I'm OK with it."

-By Melinda Deslatte, Associated Press

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