House, Senate At Odds Over Budget With Days To Strike A Deal

BATON ROUGE (AP) — As Louisiana's legislative session enters its final week, a budget deal seems far from certain to be struck that can keep public health services and colleges from deep cuts while also satisfying Gov. Bobby Jindal's financial criteria.

         The House and Senate have passed markedly different packages of tax bills to raise revenue for the upcoming fiscal year that begins July 1. And what is contained in the $24 billion budget tied to those bills also is the subject of disagreement.

         "There's still a lot of uncertainty as to how this is going to all play out," Rep. John Bel Edwards, leader of the House Democrats, said Sunday.

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         House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Joel Robideaux, a leader in the budget negotiations, summed up the situation: "Right now, there's no agreement on anything."

         The Senate is expected to pass a budget proposal Monday that contains about $250 million more in spending than the House supported. It's not necessarily the spending to which lawmakers in the House object, but some of the tax hikes used to pay for them.

         Senators agreed to raise much higher tobacco taxes than the House supported, and the two chambers differ sharply on how much to rein in Louisiana's film tax credit program.

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         Days remain to broker a deal. The legislative session must end by Thursday at 6 p.m.

         "It seems like I remember every session coming down until the last few days on the budget, and this is no different," said House Speaker Chuck Kleckley, R-Lake Charles.

         Even if the two legislative chambers can agree on how much money to raise and how to spend it, they have yet to meet Jindal's parameters for what tax changes he'll accept.

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         As the House came in for a rare Sunday session, financial analysts for the Legislature were sifting through the tax bills passed by the Senate, to determine how much money would be raised and whether the budget to be considered by senators matches the revenue projected.

         The House voted to raise cigarette taxes from 36 cents per pack to 68 cents, to drum up $68 million for next year's budget. The Senate rewrote the proposal to boost cigarette taxes to $1.08 per pack, and to bump up taxes on chewing tobacco, cigars, e-cigarettes and other tobacco products — to raise $188.5 million instead.

         House leaders said such a hefty increase cannot get the two-thirds support needed to pass.

         "We don't feel like (tobacco tax increases) should be responsible for carrying the budget," said Robideaux, R-Lafayette.

         Also at issue, the Senate lowered a House-approved cap on the film tax credit program from $200 million to $180 million while also eliminating new tax incentives designed to bolster the indigenous film industry in Louisiana. Both changes have provoked criticism in the House.

         Generating loud complaints from Democrats is the Senate's removal of a proposed $36 million inflationary increase in spending for K-12 public schools.

         If the House and Senate agree on how much new money to raise and how to spend it, they still have to decide if they'll craft a proposal to match the governor's financial parameters.

         Jindal, expected to announce his presidential campaign on June 24, won't support any tax changes he considers a net tax increase.

         House lawmakers say they have the support needed for a veto override session if the Republican governor chose to jettison the financial agreement struck by the Legislature. But the Senate isn't interested in an override session and is still trying to find a veto-proof financial deal with loopholes that can satisfy Jindal and win House support.

         – by AP Reporter Melinda Deslatte

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