Budget Cuts Days Away, Louisiana Lawmakers Return To Session


BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — With time running out before hundreds of millions in cuts take hold, Louisiana lawmakers take one more stab at raising money for next year's budget, returning Monday for their fourth legislative session this year.

Gov. John Bel Edwards called the House and Senate back to Baton Rouge for their 10th legislative session since the term began in 2016, with frustration mounting that the "fiscal cliff" is only two weeks away and attempts to reach a deal have repeatedly cratered. He's asking lawmakers to renew part of a temporary 1 percent state sales tax whose expiration is the main driver of the hole in next year's budget.

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"We have one more opportunity to get this right for the people of Louisiana," the Democratic governor said when he called this latest session.

But it remains uncertain if enough members of the House's competing factions will broker an agreement to reach the two-thirds vote required to pass a tax. House GOP leaders, whose sales tax proposal in the last session didn't have the support of a majority of the chamber, so far have been unable to shepherd any measure through the House while also reaching a deal with the more-unified Senate and Edwards.

"I don't know if they're in search of a consensus," Senate Finance Chairman Eric LaFleur, a Ville Platte Democrat, said of House leaders.

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House Speaker Taylor Barras and House GOP leader Lance Harris didn't return calls for comment about the session.

Louisiana has a 5 percent state sales tax rate that drops to 4 percent on July 1, when the new budget year begins. Edwards, senators and a majority of House members supported moving the rate to 4.5 percent in July, to raise about $500 million. House Republican leaders instead sought a 4.33 percent rate to raise about $400 million.

Now, some Republicans in the House are floating a 4.4 percent rate.

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The proposals also involve removing or scaling back some sales tax breaks, particularly sales tax exemptions that larger businesses receive.

Lawmakers passed a more than $29 billion operating budget for the upcoming year that needs another $500 million to be fully financed. Without the additional money, cuts will fall across the TOPS tuition program, college campuses and public safety programs. The Edwards administration says the food stamp program would be eliminated because the state won't be able to afford to manage it.

Republicans in the House say the governor is exaggerating, trying to scare up tax votes. They want to open up health programs, which are currently protected, to cuts next year so they can reshuffle money elsewhere.

"We have money to fund things. That's just a scare tactic," Rep. Valarie Hodges, a Livingston Parish Republican said at a recent luncheon. She told a GOP group: "There are cuts that can be made that are not catastrophic."

Senate leaders disagree with the idea of reconfiguring the budget, instead wanting to fully fund it, saying they reached an agreement among their members on the spending plan.

Lawmakers have spent 45 weeks in session in the 30 months since their term began in January 2016, with Edwards calling seven special sessions to deal with Louisiana's continuing financial uncertainty.

The latest special session is expected to cost about $50,000 to $60,000 a day. A handful of lawmakers have said they intend to donate their daily pay from this latest session to charity.

– by Melinda Deslatte, AP reporter

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