Louisiana legislators spent Tuesday diving into possible solutions for shoring up the state's finances ahead of a looming billion-dollar shortfall this summer.
But the first 24 hours of a 17-day special session ended with no clear path for any of the various revenue-raising proposals the Legislature is mulling. Lawmakers must end the special session by March 7, and the regular session during which they cannot take up revenue-raising measures runs from March 12 to June 4.
During an often tense hearing that stretched for more than three hours, House members presented a series of tax proposals to the conservative Ways & Means Committee on Tuesday morning.
The tax committee took no votes on advancing legislation to the full House for consideration. Committee Vice Chairman Jim Morris, R-Oil City, said the panel will vote Wednesday on the proposals, which span income tax and sales tax measures.
The GOP-controlled House has been locked in a battle over how much of the burden to place on businesses, which wield considerable power in the Capitol.
"It's our responsibility to do something," said Rep. Kenny Havard, a St. Francisville Republican who has legislation pending that met resistance because it would increase utilities on business and industry in the state. "Let's fix it. Let's get out of here."
This is the Legislature's fifth special session in two years, and many of the issues and disagreements have remained the same.
Ways and Means Chairman Neil Abramson said he wanted to give members a chance to hear the debate and gather information.
"It gives you an opportunity to know what all the bills do," Abramson said. "The idea is to make it fair for everyone."
Abramson's committee has become a frequent road block for tax proposals as lawmakers have spent two years debating ways to shore up the state's finances.
House Republicans have been leaning toward proposals that would allow the state to collect taxes on some items that previously have been exempt, as well as a temporary extension of one-fourth of the 1-cent sales tax hike approved as a temporary measure in 2016.
But many Democrats in the Legislature have been pushing back against proposals that rely on sales tax-only solutions. Tax proposals generally need approval from two-thirds of the chamber, or 70 members, forcing the need for bipartisan support.
House Democratic Caucus Chairman Gene Reynolds, D-Minden, said concerns over the sales tax are threatening Democratic support for revenue-raising legislation.
"It's early," he said. "I'm not going to push the panic button just yet."
Democrats want changes to the income tax to help balance out the burden.
"This state is all too reliant on sales tax," said House Speaker Pro Tempore Walt Leger III, a New Orleans Democrat who has proposed legislation to compress the income tax brackets and reduce the amount of federal taxes that people can deduct from their state tax bills.
Meanwhile, the House Appropriations Committee, which serves as a spending-side companion to the revenue-focused Ways and Means committee, easily advanced to the full House measures backed by House Speaker Taylor Barras to recalculate how the state determines how much money can be spent each year and establish a budget transparency website.
House Republicans have said that any legislation they approve to raise revenue will have to be coupled with a "spending-control" bill that they have backed. In addition to Barras' measures, the House Health and Welfare Committee is scheduled to hear legislation Thursday that would alter the state Medicaid health care program for the poor by implementing work requirements, co-pays or new eligibility checks.
Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, started the special session on Monday with a speech calling for unity across party lines.
"For the next 17 days, I am asking you not to think only as Democrats or Republicans, but as Louisianans," Edwards said in his speech. "We all want the same things. There is only one side to be on here and that is on the side of the people of our great state who are tired of hearing about the same problems year after year with no resolution."
But even Edwards, who put together a list of tax proposals he would support, largely avoided advocating a specific path during that speech.
The governor has said he would support a temporary, partial extension of the sales tax as a bridge, as members have questioned the size of the deficit.
Currently, the projected shortfall is about $994 million, but it doesn't factor the impact of a federal tax rewrite that is expected to boost state revenue.