Analysis: All Talk, Little Action So Far In LA Legislature

BATON ROUGE (AP) — Spectators watching the public meetings of the Louisiana Legislature since state lawmakers began their work two weeks ago may be tempted to ask why very little seems to be happening.

         Few measures have gotten votes so far in the two-month legislative session, and nearly all the financial bills at the core of the session's budget debate remain in the committees where they were assigned for their first hearings.

         The Senate's hamstrung by requirements that most of the tax and budget bills must begin in the House. Gov. John Bel Edwards said he doesn't feel a sense of urgency from lawmakers about the financial problems on Louisiana's horizon, but lawmakers in the House say they're crafting an approach and negotiating. It's just happening behind the scenes.

         "I don't necessarily see there being a great public display of urgency, but privately, I do see many members from both sides of the aisle working diligently to see what combination of approaches can be put together to gain support," said Rep. Chris Broadwater, a Hammond Republican.

         Democratic Rep. Walt Leger, the House's second-ranking member, said there's enough time to craft a plan to tackle Louisiana's financial problems. But he's ready for lawmakers in the House to start voting on bills that could be the building blocks of that plan.

         "I'd like to see us get moving," said Leger, from New Orleans.

Action is expected to pick up this week.

         The House Appropriations Committee will hold the last of its budget hearings Monday and Tuesday before crafting its version of a spending plan for the financial year that begins July 1. At the same time, the House Ways and Means Committee is scheduled for hearings on Edwards' main business tax plan and expected to start casting its first votes on tax bills.

         The session's central debate is how to establish long-term stability for Louisiana's state budget, to end nearly a decade of repeated shortfalls and deficits that have forced cuts across state programs and services.

         The Democratic governor and majority-Republican lawmakers enacted only temporary fixes last year. An estimated $1.3 billion in short-term tax hikes expire in mid-2018, creating a massive hole that lawmakers and Edwards call "the fiscal cliff." They're trying to find ways not only to build next year's operating budget, but to also close that looming cliff a year later.

         Edwards is proposing a tax overhaul that would raise money by shifting more of Louisiana's tax burden to businesses. House Republican leaders oppose the new business tax the governor wants to levy and want to raise less money than Edwards is proposing.

         Appropriations Chairman Cameron Henry, a Metairie Republican, is working on a "standstill" budget proposal that would have Louisiana spend less than the full estimate of what's available, keeping most agencies in line with the state financing they got this year. He said he's still negotiating with his committee members on how much state financing to use, ranging from 95 percent to 98 percent.

         The tactic would be a hedge against income estimates falling short and causing another midyear cut, which has repeatedly happened in recent years.

         "I think everyone will agree 100 percent of a wrong number is not a good idea," Henry said.

         Henry intends for his committee to vote May 1 on its version of next year's budget.

         Rep. Lance Harris, leader of the House Republican caucus, said if lawmakers hold the budget at a standstill level, he doesn't think the fiscal cliff would be nearly as large as currently estimated. He's working on his own estimates of the mid-2018 gap. That suggests House leaders may only be willing to replace that lesser figure — which Harris believes is somewhere around $700 million — instead of the full $1.3 billion hole.

         On the tax front, Ways and Means Chairman Neil Abramson, a New Orleans Democrat, had been delaying votes on tax bills, instead holding informational hearings without decisions. Now that all tax proposals have been filed and financial analyses are available, Abramson said his committee can begin voting on bills.

         That will start moving the discussion from behind closed doors to the debate floor.

         – by AP Reporter Melinda Deslatte


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