After hitting another special session impasse on Monday that prompted several public disagreements among leaders, the state House will wait until at least Wednesday before attempting again to take up tax measures.
A House panel on Sunday advanced several tax bills to the House floor for consideration — action seen among leadership as a signal that negotiations were progressing as the clock winds down on the 17-day special session that started Feb. 19.
But the GOP-controlled House, which needs a bipartisan 70 votes to pass revenue-raising measures, remained badly fractured between Republicans who favor relying on changes in the sales tax to bridge the looming billion-dollar budget gap and Democrats who want changes to the state income tax structure before agreeing to a continued sales tax hike. There is also further disagreement over a three-year sunset that was tacked onto the sales tax bill.
No votes were taken Monday, and lawmakers opted to take Tuesday as a behind-the-scenes work day. A legislator's late mother's funeral was also cited as a reason to take Tuesday off.
In the latest near-meltdown at the session's half-way point, House Speaker Taylor Barras, R-New Iberia, publicly slammed Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, for offering "unclear direction" in the special session that the governor called.
Edwards shot back that Barras' remarks were "disingenuous" and told reporters he had recently been trying to meet with the speaker to no avail.
Caught in the middle was the Legislative Black Caucus, which eventually took a swing at Republicans for suggesting that the group had threatened to derail any compromise that didn't meet members' demands.
The special session must end by March 7. Without a final deal, the state faces an estimated billion-dollar budget gap when temporary tax measures adopted in 2016 expire, though some Republicans have noted that a boost from the federal tax overhaul and growing economy may make that gap smaller.
This is the Legislature's fifth special session in two years to try to shore up the state's finances.
"There is a process we have to go through and we are going through that right now," Edwards told reporters gathered in a hallway Monday afternoon after it was announced that the House won't formally convene on Tuesday and will come back Wednesday to try again. Edwards also met again with Barras and members of the Black Caucus in the afternoon.
Because most revenue-raising measures must start in the House, the state Senate has been waiting for legislation. Special sessions cost the state an average of about $60,000 per day, according to legislative estimates.
The latest hiccup comes just hours after the first signs of movement on revenue-raising legislation. The House Ways & Means Committee advanced legislation Sunday seen as vital to any deal. One of the bills would cut a tax break for middle- and upper-income people who itemize deductions when they file their taxes each year – a Democratic priority. The other is a Republican-backed sales tax proposal that would allow the state to continue collecting taxes on some items exempted before the 2016 changes and to temporarily extend 0.25 percent of sales tax that would otherwise expire June 30. Several smaller tax measures also were advanced out of committee.
"We ought to be here today figuring out how we maintain this momentum and get this process to a conclusion – a successful conclusion," Edwards said. "I think that what the speaker did today does not bode well in our attempts to do that."
In a rare special address to the floor of the House around noon on Monday, Barras said negotiations had taken a turn, blaming "the unclear direction that is being offered from the (Edwards) administration."
"I'm just asking that there be a little clearer direction from the governor," Barras said. "I don't believe on either side of the aisle there is confidence that those bills will move."
Barras also said members of the Legislative Black Caucus approached him Monday morning with a "new development:" They want any deal to include reverting income tax brackets to levels at or near those in place before the 2008 repeal of what's known as the Stelly Plan.
Edwards had initially proposed the income tax bracket changes as part of his special session plan, but Barras said several weeks ago that it was a nonstarter for the more conservative-leaning members of the chamber.
"I cannot imagine that we are going to totally agree on every topic, but that's what this process is for," Barras said.
Members of the Black Caucus disagreed with the characterization of their income tax push as new.
Rep. Joe Bouie, D-New Orleans, said the Black Caucus has long pushed back against a sales-tax-only approach to addressing the "fiscal cliff." "It's clear we cannot do this with sales taxes alone," he said.
Rep. Ted James, D-Baton Rouge, also took to the House floor to respond.
"The discussion that was had was not new," James said. "The Black Caucus is not the reason we are here."
"To lay the blame on the governor and the Black Caucus is just irresponsible," he added.
The Black Caucus, like Edwards and other Democrats, also disagreed with an expiration date that was added to the sales tax measure.
"If true reform is not the desire of the Legislature, it will not be because the Black Caucus did not attempt everything possible to ensure all the people of Louisiana are protected," the group wrote in a statement. "If all members of the House want to seriously improve the economic landscape of Louisiana, it is time they pick up a bucket and join us in carrying their own water."
Barras said his remarks about the Black Caucus were misunderstood.
"I complimented the fact that they brought a proposal to my office," Barras said. "I certainly didn't discourage them and I certainly didn't turn them away."
He was under the impression that changes to income tax brackets were "off the table since we got here," he said.
Barras also said he felt that Edwards was the chief negotiator for Democrats and he thinks that it will be difficult to get a permanent sales tax hike through the Republican-leaning chamber.
"I think what we have to hear is what we are hearing," Barras said. "I've got to let the body work through it."