'Our Last Chance': Louisiana Lawmakers Back For Tax Session

 

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Louisiana lawmakers opened another special session Tuesday to debate taxes, which Gov. John Bel Edwards described as their "last chance" to avoid steep, damaging budget cuts when temporary taxes expire in six weeks.

"One last time, we have a chance and we have a choice. Will we seize this chance to keep the train on its tracks, or will we make the choice to fall off the fiscal cliff?" the Democratic governor told a crowd at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.

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The House and Senate gaveled in for their sixth special session in three years, all called by Edwards to address Louisiana's persistent financial troubles and disagreements.

This 14-day gathering, like a prior special session in February, will determine if lawmakers agree to replace some of the expiring taxes. The special session earlier this year ended in partisan stalemate in the House, where most tax bills must start. Edwards said he's hopeful the sense of urgency will drive action — and tax passage — this time.

"I know this special session can be different from all the others. More of us are on the same page. We want the same things," Edwards said.

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Tax hearings start Wednesday.

To kick off this latest session, the governor moved away from the traditional speech to lawmakers in the House chamber. Instead, he traveled to Lafayette, to one of the college campuses threatened with budget cuts if taxes aren't renewed. Seeking to strike a bipartisan tone, he was introduced by Republican Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser.

House Appropriations Chairman Cameron Henry, a GOP leader often at odds with the governor, criticized the location change. In a Facebook video, Henry said it was "breathtaking that that's how you'd begin your communicating with legislators is to do it via a meeting in Lafayette instead of with the Legislature in Baton Rouge."

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About $1.4 billion in temporary taxes passed by lawmakers in 2015 and 2016 to plug budget holes are expiring July 1 with the start of the new budget year. With other tax offsets, Louisiana is estimated to get $648 million less in general tax dollars next year.

Edwards wants lawmakers to raise $648 million to offset the gap — and to make whatever taxes are passed a permanent change, ending annual worries about massive budget shortfalls. Beyond taxes, lawmakers will need to work on next year's budget, after the governor Friday vetoed a $28.5 billion version that contained deep cuts.

Edwards called the spending plan "not worthy of the people of Louisiana." Even lawmakers who voted for the budget suggested they didn't want it to take effect without more money to fill gaps. But the veto irritated House GOP leaders.

The governor's plan mainly involves sales taxes. He supports renewing up to half the 1 percent sales tax expiring in six weeks, to raise more than $400 million a year. He also backs permanent removal of some sales tax breaks and the continued charging of sales taxes on business utilities. But Edwards said he's open to other tax ideas lawmakers might have.

Edwards frames the plan as a net tax reduction because Louisiana residents still would pay less next year. Critics disagree, saying any renewal would constitute a tax hike.

Pressure will be high from both sides of the tax debate.

Conservative organization Americans for Prosperity has launched an ad campaign slamming individual lawmakers who previously voted for taxes. Meanwhile, higher education and health care leaders are pushing for replacement taxes to keep their programs from cuts.

Lawmakers say there have been scant negotiations ahead of the session, creating questions about whether the House will break through its gridlock this time to pass both taxes and a budget, before the June 4 deadline.

"It's aggressive, not impossible, but it will have to be a pretty intense schedule," said House Speaker Taylor Barras, a Republican.

– by Melinda Deslatte, AP reporter

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