A little more than midway through the 25-day special session, legislative leaders don’t have a clear road map on where to get the dollars needed to prevent what everybody seems to agree would be devastating cuts to essential state government services.
State lawmakers are $150 million to $200 million short of closing a $900 million gap for the fiscal year that ends on June 30.
Both House Speaker Taylor Barras and Senate President John Alario agree the state cannot stomach deeper cuts in government spending.
“We felt that was as far as we could go in cutting yesterday,” Barras, R-New Iberia, said Friday, referring to $100 million in cuts approved by the House on Thursday.
Barras’ comments indicate that lawmakers will have to do what they say they don’t want to do — raise taxes.
But which taxes? And who would pay more?
Neither Barras nor Alario at the close of business Friday could say — or was willing to say.
“We’re looking everywhere,” said Alario, R-Westwego. “I’ve got some ideas. But I need to talk to senators first.”
Gov. John Bel Edwards also told reporters on Friday that lawmakers need to raise more money to prevent devastating cuts to colleges and universities, to continue to provide health care for the disabled, to keep the state’s prisons fully operational and to pay for dozens of other government programs.
Barras said House members might try to raise more money by ending exemptions approved by lawmakers over the years that make dozens of commercial activities free of sales taxes.
“Cleaning one, two, three or four pennies could change the final number,” Barras said, referring to the existing 4 cents of state sales taxes. (Consumers pay higher sales taxes at the cash register because of local add-ons.)
In legislative parlance, a clean penny is one free of sales tax exemptions.
On Thursday, the House approved a penny increase in the sales tax that is clean except for the tax exemption added to neutralize the opposition of the Louisiana Association for Business and Industry, the state’s most powerful business lobby. That exemption means the purchase of manufacturing components, machinery and equipment would be free of the additional penny in sales tax that would otherwise apply to all other consumer and commercial purchases.
The existing 4 cents of state sales tax contain nearly 200 exemptions — on everything from tickets to Superdome concerts to sales by qualified charitable organizations to the leasing of helicopters used in producing or exploring for oil or gas.
Several proposed measures would strip off those exemptions, a move favored by economists who call it broadening the tax base and who say it reduces the government’s role in picking winners and losers.
State Rep. Julie Stokes, R-Kenner, who has spent months studying the state sales tax system, is sponsoring a 79-page measure that would eliminate 100 or so of the sales tax exemptions on the existing four pennies. Stokes’ House Bill 104 would not touch the four-penny exemption given to industrial and manufacturing businesses on their utility bills — an exemption fiercely guarded by the Louisiana Chemical Association.
Stokes, similar to her Republican counterparts, expresses distaste at higher taxes but believes lawmakers have no other choice after Edwards and the new Legislature inherited a budget mess left by Gov. Bobby Jindal and the previous Legislature (which, ironically, contains many of the same members as this year’s).
“We can’t live on revenue decreases,” Stokes said. “We tried that over the past eight years. It’s not working.”
The Capitol is filled with business lobbyists fighting to keep tax breaks, arguing that their clients will shut down or move out of state if lawmakers go too far.
But legislators seem emboldened by reports that many big companies pay less in taxes than do their rank-and-file employees.
As The Advocate reported 10 days ago, companies have collected $210 million more in checks from state government than they have paid so far this year, although budget analysts expect the state to end up $359 million in the black in corporate tax collections.
At the same time, a 2015 study found that of the 87 largest companies that filed corporate tax returns in 2012, only a quarter of them paid corporate income taxes in Louisiana, even though 96 percent of those that make financial reports public said they were profitable.
In 2014, the state collected $624 million in corporate income and franchise taxes while not collecting another $1.7 billion because of corporate tax exemptions, the Louisiana Legislative Auditor’s Office reported last week.
“Our corporate income tax system is full of loopholes,” said state Rep. Jay Morris, R-Monroe, who has filed measures that would plug loopholes.
The nearly clean 1-cent sales tax increase passed by the House on Thursday would raise $210 million this year (and $900 million next year when the state is facing a $2 billion shortfall).
The House has a variety of other tax measures on its agenda.
House Bill 14 would raise the tax on cigarettes by 22 cents to $1.08 per pack. It is up for consideration on Monday after the sponsor, Rep. Walt Leger, D-New Orleans, decided not to try to pass it last week. The measure would raise $16 million this year.
House Bill 27 would raise the tax on beer, wine and liquor by a penny or two. It, too, is on the calendar Monday for a vote. It would raise $9 million this year.
Other bills would target a variety of business tax breaks.
Another measure by Leger, House Bill 95, would no longer allow companies to deduct their federal tax payments on their Louisiana tax returns. This measure would require the approval of voters statewide, so it would not help solve this year’s budget problem.
Yet another measure by Leger, House Bill 55, would attempt to prevent companies from shifting profits out of Louisiana through accounting gimmicks to lower what they owe here.
More than halfway through the special session, now that the House is passing tax bills, the Senate has the opportunity to amend those measures in ways that would raise more money. Senators will get a shot at doing that Sunday afternoon, when the Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Committee will meet to hear 13 tax bills.
Alario said he plans to have the full Senate begin passing tax bills on Tuesday. House bills approved unchanged by the Senate go to the governor for his approval. Amended bills have to return to the House for approval.
Passing most tax measures in the House requires 70 votes, a two-thirds majority. Tax bills that needed 70 votes for passage in the House would also need 70 votes again if they come back from the Senate.
Follow Tyler Bridges on Twitter, @TegBridges. For more coverage of government and politics, follow our Politics Blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog/.