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Advocate staff photo by BILL FEIG -- Speaker of the House Taylor Barras, R-New Iberia, left, and Senate President John Alario, R-Westwego, right, chat with staff prior to Gov. John Bel Edwards addressing a joint meeting of the Louisiana legislature to open the second special session Tuesday morning June 7, 2016.

BILL FEIG

After seven months of private meetings, state lawmakers appear no closer to addressing a looming budget deficit that, if not solved, will devastate the TOPS scholarship program, health care programs for the poor and roadwork throughout the state.

Last June, after the conservative House Republican leadership made little effort to tackle the problem, Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, told reporters that he thought the Republicans were engaged in a deliberate effort to make him seem ineffective.

Some Republicans are now saying the same thing.

“It just boils down to simple politics,” said state Rep. Kenny Havard, R-St. Francisville, a leader among Republican moderates. “The Republicans don’t want John Bel to have a win. The real losers are Louisiana citizens. We have to get beyond politics and solve the problems.”

The coming week will be a key test to see if lawmakers can heed Havard’s bipartisan call.

The governor has asked House Republican leaders to offer concrete proposals by Friday on how the Legislature should solve the so-called “fiscal cliff,” when a temporary one-cent sales tax increase and other temporary tax measures expire, causing $1.074 billion in annual revenue to vanish.

On Friday, the governor will reluctantly release a budget for next year which assumes that much money has disappeared and thus will contain deep, cuts in programs that benefit hundreds of thousands of Louisiana citizens.

The governor has warned that the cuts will be shocking in scope because the $1 billion will have to come from the discretionary part of the state budget, which totals only $3.5 billion and mostly finances health care and public colleges and universities.

The House Republicans set the stage for the latest developments when they objected to the governor’s tax plans last year, saying Louisianians pay enough in taxes and arguing that the state needs to make dramatic spending cuts. But they haven’t said where they would cut.

In other words, the House Republican leaders have clearly indicated what they oppose. But what will they support?

Edwards has been asking for an answer to that question since the Legislature adjourned in June after a special session that cost taxpayers $60,000 a day — one called because lawmakers failed to pass the state budget during the year’s regular session.

“I will be looking for leadership in the House of Representatives to tell me that there is a plan that they will push toward,” Edwards said then. “If there is not, why would we come back and do what we just did, at the cost of $60,000 a day?”

Edwards turned his fire once again on the chamber’s leaders on Monday before the Baton Rouge Press Club.

“They’ve never come with anything that looks like a plan,” he said. “They’re resistant to everything. They don’t want to fix the problem.”

Not a dictator

Not so, say Republicans allied with House Speaker Taylor Barras, R-New Iberia. They credit Barras with calling and meeting with Republican House members since June to see what they will support.

“He’s not the dictator of the House,” Rep. Jay Morris, R-Monroe, said approvingly, noting that many previous speakers ran roughshod over members to pass key legislation.

When the Legislature adjourned last year, Barras said, referring to the $1 billion needed to solve the fiscal cliff, “I’m adamant that it can’t be all revenue, and it can’t be all cuts. What combination of that is what we will spend the offseason working for.”

That offseason work has yet to yield results, so far anyway.

After months of asking, Edwards is saying he needs a plan by Friday to give him confidence to call a special session that would begin once Carnival ends on Feb. 13. Under the state Constitution, the Legislature can consider tax measures this year only in a special session. The regular session runs from March 12 to June 4.

Edwards would prefer to try to address the fiscal cliff in a special session that ends before March 12. But after two regular and four special sessions that haven’t yet solved the state’s budget problems, he has said he wants assurances from House Republicans that they will support a plan during that special session.

Holding a special session after June 4 would cause havoc with planning for the next budget year and give the Legislature little room for error because the one-cent sales tax increase and other temporary tax measures — and the $1 billion they generate — will disappear on July 1.

Morris dismissed Edwards’ demands that House Republicans must offer a plan, saying the only way to determine what the people want is to have lawmakers debating and voting on bills.

“You can poll people all you want before session, but until the bills are out there, you won’t get agreement for things in advance,” Morris said.

Havard and other moderate Republicans disagree.

“What’s wrong with John Bel coming up with a plan and us coming up with a plan and working together on a compromise?” asked Havard. “That’s what we should be doing.”

Added state Rep. Tanner Magee, R-Houma, another moderate: “I think everybody should offer something. People are pretty nervous to plant their flag because they think they’ll get kicked hard.”

The focus is on House Republicans for two reasons. One is that all revenue bills must originate in the House. The other is that the Senate — which also has a Republican majority — is generally allied with the governor, under the leadership of Senate President John Alario, R-Westwego.

Recommendations rejected

In mid-December, Edwards said the best solution to the fiscal cliff lies in the recommendations of a blue-ribbon panel created by the Legislature. The House considered variations on virtually all of those recommendations last year. In general terms, they would end income tax breaks that benefit businesses and higher-income individuals.

But, as Edwards noted, the Ways and Means Committee rejected them. Barras has stacked the committee with conservatives, and it is led by Rep. Neil Abramson, D-New Orleans, who got the job after breaking with his Democratic colleagues to support Barras for speaker. Abramson has shown little regard for the governor’s tax agenda.

Since June, Edwards has met with business and community leaders throughout the state to build political support for his views — an effort that has yet to pay any visible dividends.

Legislators, in the meantime, have held a series of private meetings to try to find common ground. Six meetings involved Republican and Democratic legislative leaders. After the last one, lawmakers agreed to meet again in January to see what they could support.

That meeting took place at the Governor’s Mansion on Monday with Barras; Abramson; Rep. Lance Harris, R-Alexandria, who chairs the Republican caucus; Rep. Cameron Henry, R-Metairie, who chairs the Budget Committee; Rep. Gene Reynolds, D-Minden, who chairs the Democratic caucus; and  Rep. Joe Bouie, D-New Orleans, the caucus' vice chair.

Reynolds said he laid out how many votes each proposal could receive among Democrats. But the Republicans offered few specifics, he said, leaving him frustrated.

“They came to the meeting and didn’t have jack squat,” he said in an interview.

Since then, Edwards has expressed pessimism about holding the post-Carnival special session because the Republicans and Abramson did not offer specifics. That would mean an up-against-the-deadline special session in June.

Barras did not return a phone call Friday.

Two participants sympathetic with Edwards’ view said Barras and his allies asked the governor to begin requiring Medicaid recipients to make a co-payment when they receive treatment, to begin requiring some Medicaid recipients to work for their benefits and to streamline government spending along the lines of a plan implemented recently in Ohio.

Edwards expressed an openness to all of those ideas and requested more details, they said, but noted that the proposals wouldn’t go far toward fixing the looming $1 billion deficit.

Republicans have said it is the governor who hasn’t offered enough specifics.

Taxpayers, Harris said after the meeting, “deserve simple, yet specific details like the actual bills, the fiscal notes and the financial impact.”

Rep. Rob Shadoin, R-Ruston, disagreed, saying that lawmakers already have all the information they need.

“At some point, every bill to address the problem has been filed and has been vetted and heard by the (Ways and Means) committee,” he said. “This is nothing new the governor is proposing. We’ve had more than enough time to evaluate the pluses and minuses of all these ideas.”

One proposal that Barras is floating privately would renew one-fourth of the one-cent sales tax, as a partial solution.

The politics of taxes

At the heart of the standoff between Edwards and the House Republican leadership is the politics of taxes.

Both nationally and in Louisiana, Republicans run on anti-tax and anti-government platforms and portray Democrats as tax-and-spend liberals. Not supporting tax increases would make it easier for their candidate to use taxes as a political weapon against Edwards in the next governor’s race.

“This governor's appetite for spending is out of control, and now he is refusing to call a special session unless legislative leaders agree to his tax increases before the session even starts,” Roger Villere, chairman of the Republican Party of Louisiana, said in a written statement in December.

Many devoted Republicans are still smarting over Edwards’ long-shot victory over their candidate, then-U.S. Sen. David Vitter, in the 2015 governor’s race, and they want to send Edwards packing in 2019. Edwards is the only Democrat to hold statewide office in Louisiana and is the only Democratic governor of a Deep South state.

But Edwards earned a robust 65 percent approval rating in a late November poll by Southern Media & Opinion Research, up 10 points from his rating in May 2017, during the last legislative session.

“Contentious legislative sessions in which Gov. Edwards and Republicans clash over spending and revenue priorities obviously hurt Edwards’ job ratings,” wrote pollster Bernie Pinsonat in explaining Edwards’ recent rise.

That may be why Republican House leaders don’t want to cede too much ground to Edwards.

“If the focus is taxes, it hurts him,” said John Couvillon, who has his own polling firm, adding that Edwards is trying to avoid the Republican trap.

“The governor has been playing the reasonable guy, looking for any solution and challenging Republicans to come up with something.”

Follow Tyler Bridges on Twitter, @tegbridges.