The special session's slow-moving collapse has come to an end at the Louisiana Capitol with the state no closer to bridging a looming budget gap that could threaten funding for higher education and health care.
When the regular legislative session ended last year, lawmakers adjourned without mustering the political will to pass a budget, the one task …
The state Legislature adjourned Monday — two days ahead of schedule — after the House failed to break through an impasse that ultimately ground efforts to move revenue-raising measures to a halt a week ago.
Lawmakers had been called to Baton Rouge for their fifth special session in two years to try to replace revenue that the state will lose when $1.3 billion in temporary tax measures adopted in 2016 expire June 30. The next budget cycle begins July 1.
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Matt Houston/LSU Manship School News Service
The special session's premature end now leaves in question the Legislature's ability to craft a budget in the regular session that begins next week with about $700 million less to spend on state services.
"I don't believe it's possible," Gov. John Bel Edwards said after the special session ended. "I know it isn't possible to budget responsibly and fund our most critical priorities at that level."
Edwards noted the shortfall is even larger when federal spending linked to state spending is factored.
Under state law, most revenue-raising measures cannot be taken up in regular sessions in even-numbered years, prompting the need for a special session if lawmakers hope to replace any of the expiring revenue streams, including a temporary one-cent sales tax hike.
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The regular session is scheduled to end June 4, but Edwards and House and Senate leaders said Monday that they would support a plan to end the regular session early and then hold another special session starting in May.
"I'm hopeful we can do it – we need to do it," Edwards said. "It's clear that up to now there has been a lack of a sense of urgency."
Special sessions cost the state about $60,000 a day. Holding a special session when lawmakers would normally be in the regular session would reduce the extra costs.
But it's unclear whether yet another special session would even bear fruit in the House, which became particularly acerbic as the latest special session stretched on. At several points, members took to deep personal jabs at each other and the governor.
After Sunday night's meeting ended with all signs pointing toward an imminent end to the special session, several members turned to social media to publicly air their frustrations with their colleagues and the lack of progress.
"The options aren't going to change, but we better change," Edwards said, noting the level of acrimony that had built in the State Capitol. "We better get serious."
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The session break down came as House members couldn't agree to the best approach to raising revenue: Republicans who supported tax measures generally favored a proposal to extend one-quarter of the sales tax that will be expiring. Democrats pushed for a separate bill that would cut a tax break people receive when they itemize their tax deductions.
Ultimately, both proposals were rejected in the House. Distrust over any deal had ultimately mounted to the point of causing disputes over the order that bills would be considered.
House Republican leaders have long said that they think the state budget is bloated and should be cut.
"I think we are at a turning point when it comes to revenue versus expenditures," House Speaker Taylor Barras, R-New Iberia, said Sunday evening, chalking up the lack of movement on revenue bills to the conservative wing of the chamber's continued preference for cuts.
Outside groups, including Americans for Prosperity, have also have leaned on legislators to cut the nearly $30 billion budget.
"I am looking forward to the legislature solving the ever-decreasing deficit during the regular session by passing a budget with responsible cuts to state government," AFP state director John Kay said in a statement Monday. "A second special session in 2018 is completely unnecessary and would be another waste of taxpayer dollars whether taxes are raised in that session or not."
But two regular sessions and four previous special sessions into the current term, lawmakers have not identified substantive savings that would close such a gap the state faces.
Much of the state budget — all but about $3.3 billion — is federal funding or otherwise protected from cuts by law, exposing higher education and health care as the largest areas from which cuts can be made.
"We're facing some very stiff cuts to people all across this state," said Rep. Gary Carter, D-New Orleans. "I believe we have to raise revenue to have a proper budget."
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In previous budget-slashing discussions, optional services tended to be at the front of the line for cuts. Those include health care programs that cover medically fragile children and the developmentally disabled, as well as the popular Taylor Opportunity Program for Students that provides tuition-covering grants for thousands of college students.
More than 50,000 students benefit from TOPS each year, including about 14,000 at LSU alone.
Louisiana's safety net hospitals and rural hospitals also could be put at risk if state funding falls below sustainable levels.
Edwards presented an executive budget recommendation in January that reflects the types of cuts that would be needed to balance the budget if the state faced a $994 million shortfall.
It's unclear how large the budget gap will remain. The Revenue Estimating Conference meets later this month to update the state's economic forecast and is expected to recognize a $302 million boost that the state will receive from the federal tax rewrite.
"That would be a little bit of money to spread around to a lot of places," Barras said.
Other outstanding factors include a possible bump from increased oil prices or other economic improvements.
Advocate writer Tyler Bridges contributed to this report.
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