As deadline approaches, little legislative progress towards solving Louisiana’s $900 million budget crisis

Nine days before the special legislative session ends, the Louisiana House and Senate made little progress publicly Monday toward solving the state’s budget crisis, but legislative leaders and Gov. John Bel Edwards held meetings in private to try to find a path forward.

House and Senate leaders have agreed that the political will doesn’t exist to make deeper cuts to state government programs. But not enough Republicans in the House at this point are willing to vote for additional taxes to produce the extra $150 million to $200 million that legislative leaders say is needed to plug the current year’s budget shortfall.

“We’re trying to get to a consensus on what we can vote on,” said state Rep. Gene Reynolds, D-Minden, who heads the House Democratic Caucus.

The House did not vote Monday on measures that would raise the tax on cigarettes by 22 cents to $1.08 per pack and raise the tax on beer, wine and liquor by 1 to 4 cents.

“I don’t think people want to bring bills that have no chance to pass,” said state Rep. Walt Leger, D-New Orleans, who is sponsoring the tobacco tax increase, in words echoed by state Rep. Kenny Cox, D-Natchitoches, the alcohol tax sponsor.

“I’ve heard that Republicans are willing to pass more tax measures, but I haven’t seen it yet,” Leger added.

Besides Leger and Cox, lawmaker after lawmaker also asked that the full House not take up his or her tax measure Monday. As a result, House Clerk Alfred Speer intoned on some two dozen tax measures that the bill would be taken up “tomorrow.”

That is, if the 70 votes are there to pass it.

On Monday, the House debated and passed a single tax bill that would impose a 3 percent tax on car rentals. That’s an easier vote because the tax will hit mostly tourists.

Last week, the House did heavy lifting when it passed a temporary 1-cent increase in the state sales tax and several smaller tax measures, as part of Edwards’ plan to end a $900 million shortfall with tax increases, spending cuts and patchwork financing. The legislative action so far has left the $150 million to $200 million gap.

“I’m hearing that when they voted for the penny, that was too much, we’re taxed out,” Cox said, explaining the Republicans’ resistance to more tax increases.

Senate President John Alario, R-Westwego, said the House’s failure to approve the tax bills Monday concerned him.

“We need extra instruments we can get our hands on,” Alario said in an interview after the Senate adjourned.

But the Senate was in no hurry to move forward either on Monday.

The Senate Revenue & Fiscal Affairs Committee approved only one small measure that would help close the deficit this year, while the full Senate took no action on the tax bills before it.

Alario said senators are wary of voting for more tax measures because they want a clearer idea of how much money is needed.

“Members don’t want to vote for more taxes than they need to,” he said.

Much of the attention is focused on House Bill 122, which was approved by the House last week and would cut state spending by $100 million this year. The Senate Finance Committee reviewed the measure again on Monday.

In that $100 million are deep cuts to the state Department of Veterans Affairs, the Governor’s Office, the tourism office, State Police, health care for the mentally ill and dozens of other programs. The bill also would cut $44 million from the state Department of Education that would eliminate college testing programs and money for voucher programs — something that Alario has said is not acceptable.

“We’re going to make some pretty significant cuts,” House Appropriations Chairman Cameron Henry, the Metairie Republican who sponsored the bill, told the Senate committee on Monday.

Henry faced a backlash when he suggested that the state could “roll forward” some of its shortfall to next year, as a way of delaying having to find a solution.

Henry explained that anything not covered through spending cuts or tax increases this year would move to the next year’s budget deficit, which is already $2 billion.

“That’s not an option,” state Sen. Eric LaFleur, D-Ville Platte, the committee chairman, told Henry. “That’s something we would not want to go home and tell anybody that we did.”

Alario, who rarely confronts a legislator publicly, called the idea a “terrible way to conduct the people’s business.” Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne chimed in that it was questionable legally.

Henry clarified that he wasn’t advocating for the “rolling” deficit plan, but that it was a potential solution.

Questions over how much the Senate Finance Committee will reduce the $100 million of cuts passed by the House is adding to the budget uncertainty.

“We would like to know the balance of cuts coming back from the Senate,” House Speaker Taylor Barras, R-New Iberia, said in an interview after the House adjourned.

Alario said he expected the committee to settle on the exact amount of cuts on Tuesday and pass the bill.

Meanwhile, Edwards met on Monday with Leger and Rep. Jack Montoucet, D-Crowley, and tobacco lobbyists Randy Haynie and Josh Borill to try to settle on a tobacco increase that both sides could accept.

Edwards also has met with John Williams, the lead lobbyist against the alcohol tax increase, to try to find a solution on that measure.

Over the weekend, Republicans who supported the penny sales tax increase heard about it from their constituents.

State Rep. Paula Davis, R-Baton Rouge, said she got a mixed reaction.

“I heard from some who said they wanted no new taxes,” she said. “Others said please do whatever it takes to save Our Lady of the Lake (hospital) and LSU.”

State Rep. Stephen Dwight, R-Lake Charles, got a similar response.

“Some said thank you for saving TOPS and SOWELA,” said Dwight, referring to the college scholarship program for Louisiana high school graduates and the Southwest Louisiana Technical Community College.

To critics, he told them he saw no other solution.

“I held my nose and voted for it,” he said.

Elizabeth Crisp, of The Advocate Capitol news bureau, contributed to this report. Follow Tyler Bridges on Twitter, @TegBridges. For more coverage of government and politics, follow our Politics Blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog/.

More Stories