Louisiana Tax Session Negotiations Kick Off With Tension
BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Negotiations over passing taxes to fill gaps in Louisiana's budget started off tensely Wednesday between Gov. John Bel Edwards' administration and House lawmakers, raising questions about whether a deal will be struck in the two-week special session.
The Democratic governor is trying to heighten pressure to win support for $648 million in taxes to replace some temporary taxes that expire when the budget year begins July 1. He rallied leaders and employees of Louisiana's safety-net hospitals Wednesday, calling on them to buttonhole lawmakers and press for tax votes, saying the facilities are threatened with cuts.
"Be here looking at them when they vote," Edwards told the group of hospital executives, nurses, doctors and staff as lawmakers entered their second day of the special session.
But in the House tax committee, where most tax bills must start, Republican lawmakers criticized Edwards' approach. They questioned why the governor vetoed a budget for next year, whether he's done enough to find government savings and whether they need to raise as much as his target.
"My fear, honest to goodness, is I'm going to vote on raising revenue and we're going to be in the same position next year. It's never enough," said Rep. Jim Morris, a Republican from Oil City and vice chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.
Aggravation and distrust was evident.
Rep. Paul Davis, a Baton Rouge Republican, echoed the complaints of other GOP lawmakers when she described disappointment that Edwards jettisoned a $28.5 billion spending plan passed in the just-ended regular session. She said the budget had pinpointed the gaps that needed to be filled with any additional taxes passed by lawmakers.
"Now we're completely starting over again," Davis said. "It's just very frustrating to me."
Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne, the governor's chief budget adviser, told Davis the budget — which shielded most health care services by making deep cuts to education programs, public safety services and other agencies — was unworkable.
"It was a 100 percent unacceptable budget," Dardenne said.
Davis replied that with the veto, "some folks kind of changed their minds a little bit" about whether they'd support the governor's push for taxes.
About $1.4 billion in temporary taxes passed by lawmakers to plug budget holes are expiring July 1. With other tax offsets, Louisiana is estimated to get $648 million less in general tax dollars next year.
The governor's plan mainly involves sales taxes. He supports renewing half the expiring 1 percent sales tax, eliminating some sales tax breaks and continuing to charge sales taxes on business utilities. But Edwards said he's open to other tax ideas.
The sour tone of Wednesday's talks suggested compromise could be difficult to find before the special session must end June 4. As if to highlight the risk of failure, Republicans asked questions about what happens if Louisiana doesn't have a budget in place July 1.
It remained unclear when the Ways and Means Committee will even begin taking votes on proposals. Dardenne and Democrats on the committee stressed urgency.
"We need to get down to business — cut the rhetoric from both sides," said Rep. Major Thibaut, a Democrat from New Roads. "Let's solve the darn problem."
Rep. Ted James, a Baton Rouge Democrat, complained about how the committee started its tax talks: "All I've heard for the last two hours are excuses. The tone of the committee has been to rehash the past."