The state House burst through a logjam that has kept most important pieces of legislation holed up in committee this special session, during a rare, but critical, Sunday gathering that stretched into the evening.
For two years now, conservative Republicans and Democrats led by Gov. John Bel Edwards have been clashing at the State Capitol over how to fin…
The House Ways & Means committee agreed to send legislation that is seen as vital to shoring up the state budget before temporary tax measures expire this summer to the full House for consideration, voting 10-7 to advance a measure that seeks to rein in a tax break for middle- and upper-income people who itemize deductions when they file their taxes each year and 12-6 to advance a sales tax proposal that would allow the state to continue collecting taxes on some items exempted before changes in 2016 and temporarily extend 0.25 percent of a sales tax hike that is set to expire June 30. Several smaller tax measures also were advanced out of committee.
The push to move tax legislation to the House floor came after lawmakers took Friday and Saturday off after a rocky start to the special session that began Monday.
Many of the legislators who agreed to advance bills on Sunday, acknowledged that they viewed it as the first step in a longer process. If legislation passes the full House, it then heads to the Senate for vetting.
"My interest is to make sure we have instruments moving to the floor," said Rep. Chris Broadwater, R-Hammond.
It remains to be seen how it will fare in the upper chamber.
New Orleans Democratic Sen. J.P. Morrell said Sunday night that he views the tax measures, as they passed in the House committee, as untenable. He chairs the Senate Revenue & Fiscal Affairs Committee, which will consider the legislation should it clear the full House later this week. An amendment added to the sales tax bill would limit it to three years.
“As you might recall having a temporary anything is how we got into this situation in the first place,” Morrell said. “We’re kind of done with that. I am not in support of temporary solutions to on-going problems."
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He argued that the patching over the budget gap, with the hope that the state's financial situation will improve, isn't fiscally sound.
“This is akin to somebody taking out a payday loan to pay their mortgage and telling the bank: ‘Don’t worry I play the lottery every weekend and pretty soon I’m going to win’,” Morrell said.
The tax bills are tied to several GOP priority measures that don't have any immediate impact on the state budget, including the creation of a budget transparency website and a new spending cap.
Credit rating agencies have already told the state that they are looking for more permanent efforts to stabilize the budget, Morrell and others noted Sunday.
“This reaffirms for them that we’re not serious about permanently fixing out problems,” Morrell said.
The sales tax legislation, House Bill 23, sponsored by Rep. Stephen Dwight, R-Lake Charles, would generate about $300 million in revenue annually. It's unclear how much the income tax proposal, House Bill 8, sponsored by Rep. Walt Leger III, D-New Orleans, would bring in as it was scaled back before the committee approved it.
When work began Sunday, the State Capitol mood remained tense.
Lobbyists and legislators approached the Ways & Means committee room like fans excitedly heading into a standing-room-only Tiger Stadium for a big game. The tax bills have become a barometer for whether the 17-day special session will be seen as a failure or success.
Democrats have opposed a sales tax-only approach to shoring up the state's finances, while Republicans have largely opposed income tax changes.
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The other major issue of the session – a series of Medicaid-related measures – also saw movement on Sunday.
The House Health & Welfare Committee agreed to a scaled-back version of legislation that will instruct the state Department of Health to develop work requirements for the Medicaid health care program for the poor. The legislation was amended to include a line that it would not have the effect of forcing people to lose their insurance.
Gov. John Bel Edwards' administration supported the work requirement proposal that is being sent to the full House for consideration.
"This is a holistic bill; it's a non-punitive bill that we have worked with (sponsor Rep. Frank Hoffman) on," said Louisiana Department of Health Secretary Dr. Rebekah Gee.
The Legislature is entering the second week of the special session. Up until Sunday, there had been little movement on measures that would fill a nearly billion-dollar budget gap. The special session must end March 7.
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