The Louisiana House appeared to teeter on the edge of meltdown as the fourth day of the special session began with a rejection of a series of Republican-priority proposals tied to the pricey Medicaid health care program.
But by Thursday evening, and after multiple meetings across various factions, signs began to emerge that tensions may be thawing as the special session continues toward its March 7 deadline.
The House Ways and Means Committee, which is the first hurdle for tax legislation, is expected to meet again Sunday to again take up a series of revenue-raising measures that floundered there earlier this week.
House Speaker Taylor Barras, R-New Iberia, expressed optimism that progress is being made toward a compromise
Lawmakers are attempting to forge a deal to pass sales tax and income tax measures out of the committee and to the House floor for consideration.
"I feel a lot better – better than I did yesterday," Rep. Ted James, a Baton Rouge Democrat and vice chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus, said Thursday evening.
A sales tax proposal seen as critical to the session appeared poised to pass the Ways & Means Committee on Wednesday before James objected, prompting it to be pulled before a vote.
The next harbinger of a looming breakdown in the session came about 24 hours later when four Medicaid proposals — establishing work requirements for some Medicaid recipients, charging co-pays or premiums and creating new eligibility checks — all failed to get a vote in the House Health & Welfare Committee. Those are expected to be brought up again on Sunday, as well, but just hours before, they appeared mired in gridlock.
"I can read the tea leaves," a visibly frustrated Rep. Jack McFarland, R-Jonesboro, told the Health panel before pulling his Medicaid proposals.
Only two of the priorities that Gov. John Bel Edwards and legislative leaders identified before the session – the creation of a new budget transparency website and new spending cap – have made it out of committee. Both are scheduled to be debated on the House floor Sunday.
The standstill that has stymied action in the State Capitol in the early days of the special session has increasingly raised questions about whether anything of substance will successfully pass.
But House members involved in negotiations showed renewed signs of optimism as Thursday stretched on.
"It got off life support and has legs," state Rep. Stephen Dwight, R-Lake Charles, said late Thursday evening of his sales tax bill.
Dwight had declared Wednesday about the same bill when it failed to get a vote, "without this bill, this session is over."
Dwight's plan would make permanent one-fourth of a temporary one-penny sales tax hike. It would also allow the state to charge sales tax on items that were previously exempt before their carve outs were temporarily rolled back in 2016. Dwight's bill would bring in about $300 million annually, according to legislative estimates.
Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, spent much of Thursday meeting with House Republican leadership, as well as Democrats on the Ways & Means Committee and the Democratic Caucus to try to rally support for legislation.
Some Democrats, including James, also met with Barras on Thursday.
Democrats oppose relying only on sales tax to shore up the state's finances. They want full House to consider an income tax proposal, though several conservative members of the Ways & Means Committee generally oppose the idea.
Democrats are currently backing a cut to tax breaks that benefit mostly middle- and upper-income taxpayers who itemize deductions when they file their taxes.
The Medicaid changes that failed to get a vote Thursday were part of a package put forth by House Republican leaders as necessary in exchange for agreeing to replace expiring taxes and close a nearly billion-dollar budget gap that looms June 30.
McFarland said after the hearing that the lack of movement so far in the special session may predict a grim outcome for its outcome.
"Where is the compromise?" he said. "I thought that was the whole point of this."
By Thursday evening, several members huddled together on the House floor, going over legislation and proposals and the mood grew noticeably lighter.
"I think people are at least talking around the building," said Rep. Jay Morris, R-West Monroe. "Whether anything is being accomplished, I really don't know at this point."