Deal Possible? Sales Tax Bills Advance In Louisiana House


BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Three sales tax proposals to lessen state budget cuts that hit in fewer than two weeks edged forward Wednesday in the Louisiana House, but a tax deal remains far from certain for passage in the remaining days of the special session.

Advancement of the measures from the conservative House Ways and Means Committee keeps negotiations ongoing in a short, 10-day session that must end June 27, the third special session on taxes this year.

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"The hardest part of this process is moving instruments out of this committee," said committee member Rep. Major Thibaut, a New Roads Democrat.

While supporters of additional taxes for the budget cheered the movement of three different options for debate, lawmakers in the House continue to be divided on what, if any, tax they will support. That raises questions of whether any proposal can win enough support from Democrats and Republicans on the House floor to reach the two-thirds vote to pass.

Republican House Speaker Taylor Barras said the House will vote on taxes Thursday.

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Gov. John Bel Edwards said he was hopeful a tax deal could be reached this time, after prior efforts to broker a compromise failed in the two previous sessions. He said the conversations he's having with lawmakers "are different and better than they were before."

"I think there is a much clearer understanding of the need to fix the problem," the Democratic governor said on his monthly radio show. But he also acknowledged "we're all just a little bit anxious" as the cuts near.

Lawmakers passed a budget starting July 1 that needs $506 million to be fully financed. If the dollars aren't raised, college campuses, the TOPS tuition program, district attorneys' offices, state parks and public safety services will be hammered with reductions. Louisiana's social services agency says the food stamp program will be eliminated.

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None of the bills advanced Wednesday would raise enough to fully fund the budget.

This special session centers on whether part of a 1 percent sales tax should be continued next month, when the state's sales tax rate is scheduled to drop from 5 percent to 4 percent.

The majority-GOP Ways and Means Committee, without objection, advanced a proposal by Chairman Neil Abramson, a New Orleans Democrat, to renew 0.33 percent of the tax. Members voted 12-5 for a measure by Baton Rouge Republican Rep. Paula Davis to renew 0.4 percent. They also voted 9-7 for a bill by Lafayette Republican Rep. Stuart Bishop to renew half the tax, but scale it down in phases.

The committee, however, narrowly rejected Edwards' favored sales tax bill of a straight 0.5 percent sales tax renewal.

The measures advanced to the House floor vary on how they scale back sales tax breaks. All the proposals have an expiration date. Louisiana's largest business groups didn't object to any of them.

Barras backs Davis' bill to raise $424 million next year. But members of the Legislative Black Caucus voted in a bloc against the bill Wednesday, preferring the 0.5 percent rate to raise $510 million. A day earlier, Rep. Ted James, caucus vice chairman, warned that Davis' approach "won't get out" of the House because it can't win enough Democratic support.

The difference between the two rates is 10 cents in sales taxes on every $100 of spending.

"I just hope that we can work together to come to a compromise," Davis said. "June 30th is approaching fast."

– by Melinda Deslatte, AP reporter

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