With Cuts Near, Edwards Says: 'Time For Solutions Is Now'


BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Days away from deep budget cuts, a frustrated Gov. John Bel Edwards asked Louisiana lawmakers gathered in their fourth legislative session this year to "hit the reset button," ignore political maneuvering and reach a tax deal to stop the reductions.

"The time for politics, the time for partisanship over. The time for solutions is now. The citizens of this state have waited long enough," the Democratic governor said.

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

In a short speech, the governor laid blame for failure to reach a tax agreement on partisan politics that "has infested this building in a way we have not seen before." He warned if this latest session failed without lessening looming cuts, "none of us in this chamber will win."

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.

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

House GOP leader Lance Harris said he believes a solution can be reached.

"I'm an upbeat person. I'm always optimistic," he said. "I was optimistic last time."

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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.

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 that needs another $500 million to be fully financed. Without 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.

"This will be our last opportunity to give (people) the security that they need and the peace of mind that they deserve so that they can get back to living without fear of the services they depend upon being eliminated," Edwards told lawmakers.

Some House Republicans 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. "There are cuts that can be made that are not catastrophic."

Senate leaders disagree with reconfiguring the budget, instead wanting to fully fund it.

House Democrats also oppose reworking the spending plans. Rep. Ted James, a Baton Rouge Democrat and vice chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus, called the effort "an attempt to derail the session."

Tax and budget hearings begin Tuesday in House committees, with tax votes expected to start Wednesday.

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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