Breakthrough? Signs Of Movement In Louisiana Special Session


BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Lawmakers are showing signs of possibly breaking through the logjam in Louisiana's special session that has stymied all action on tax proposals to close a nearly $1 billion budget gap, though the pieces of a deal still appeared shaky Friday.

For two days, lawmakers pulled bills from consideration without votes amid concerns they can't pass, leaving them bottled up in two committees. But new hearings are scheduled Sunday, after closed-door meetings among House leaders and Gov. John Bel Edwards' administration aimed at breaking the impasse.

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GOP House Speaker Taylor Barras expressed optimism Thursday night: "I think we are making great progress."

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.

Rep. Ted James, a Baton Rouge Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee that handles tax bills, said Friday he believes an agreement has been reached. But he was restrained in hopefulness, noting previous deals have fallen apart in contentious tax debates.

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"I left there thinking that we were in pretty good shape," James said. "I am somewhat concerned because I'm very cautious about anything until it happens in the Legislature."

The attempt at compromise involves allowing a handful of tax bills, some sought by Republicans and others sought by Democrats, to advance to the House floor for debate. Also part of the agreement would involve moving Medicaid work-requirement and anti-fraud proposals sought by Republicans in exchange for tax votes.

That would simply be the first step. It's unclear what, if anything, could win enough support from the full House for passage.

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But almost as soon as lawmakers suggested the measures could get out of committee, resistance started to reappear.

"There might be a deal. I'm not part of it," said Rep. Alan Seabaugh, a Shreveport Republican who sits on the Ways and Means Committee and doesn't support taxes.

Seabaugh said he would object to nearly every tax bill on the committee agenda for Sunday — opposing attempts to allow them to advance without individual lawmakers having to vote on them.

"If they want it to come out, they better get the votes," he said.

Seabaugh offered one exception, saying he might not object to a measure by Rep. Stephen Dwight, a Lake Charles Republican, that is favored by House GOP leaders. The proposal would permanently renew one-quarter of an expiring 1 percent sales tax, along with elimination of some sales tax breaks, to raise an estimated $300 million a year.

"I might be willing to let it out for the sake of argument and for the sake of the debate and for the sake of not blowing up the session," Seabaugh said.

But then he added: "I reserve the right to change my mind." He also said he wouldn't support the measure if it reached the full House for debate.

Democrats, particularly members of the Legislature's Black Caucus, only will agree to support moving the sales tax bill out of committee in exchange for advancement of a proposal cutting tax breaks for middle- and upper-income taxpayers who itemize deductions on their income tax returns. If Seabaugh forces a vote on that income tax proposal, it's unclear if enough Republicans would back the measure to get it out of committee.

-by AP reporter Melinda Deslatte



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