What do Republicans in the Louisiana House want, and when will they reveal it?
Those are the overriding questions in the State Capitol as the second week of the 25-day special legislative session begins.
Gov. John Bel Edwards and leaders of the House Republican delegation held a series of private meetings Thursday and Friday to try to find common ground on a package of proposals aimed at solving Louisiana’s short-term budget crisis and avoiding devastating cuts to health care for the disabled, the state’s prison system, the public hospital system and the public colleges and universities.
Edwards is asking Republicans to agree to raise the state sales tax by one cent and approve other taxes that combined with deep budget cuts, he already has made and one-time money grabs he is proposing would plug the massive $900 million deficit by June 30. Republicans are asking Edwards to accept changes aimed at cutting government spending in the long term and to agree that the one-cent sales tax be temporary.
The governor told The Advocate on Friday night that he is open to discussing the House Republicans’ proposals, but complained that they are moving too slowly and have yet to provide specifics.
“They haven’t identified one contract they want to reduce, one statutory dedication that they want to eliminate,” Edwards said. “They haven’t proposed one specific cut. I can’t tell you I oppose anything that they’re proposing to me because they have not proposed anything to me yet.”
Nor have Republicans laid out the structural changes they want, which involve pensions for state employees, state spending on highways and bridges, ways to reduce fraud in the Medicaid program and drug sentencing laws.
“They have yet to give me the list of what they’re trying to accomplish,” Edwards said. “They’ve given me some headings, but nothing underneath it, no specifics.”
House Republicans were supposed to provide those specifics on Friday, “but pulling together all the ideas is harder than I thought,” state Rep. Lance Harris, R-Alexandria, said Saturday.
Harris, who heads the Republican House delegation, said he and colleagues were working over the weekend to get their plan to the governor on Monday. “Nobody has stopped working,” he said.
House Republicans haven’t presented specific spending cuts yet because they don’t know exactly how much money each of Edwards’ tax proposals would raise, said state Rep. Cameron Henry, R-Metairie, who is their point person on spending as chairman of the Appropriations Committee.
“The governor’s revenue-raising package still does not have fiscal notes for all the bills,” Henry said Saturday. “You can’t put a plan together without numbers.”
Fiscal notes are prepared by the Legislative Fiscal Office and lay out how much money each bill will generate or cost the state treasury.
There’s a political overlay to the finger-pointing by Edwards and Henry as both sides are positioning themselves to blame the other in case the negotiations collapse and the special session ends on March 9 without a deal. Too many Republicans could balk at the taxes that Edwards says are necessary, or the governor might prove unwilling to accept enough of the Republicans’ demands.
In that case, Edwards and university presidents have warned that classes could be canceled and that campuses could even have to shut down temporarily.
Parents of the disabled have put a human face on the budget problem by attending committee hearings during the first week of the special session, wearing bright red or yellow T-shirts.
“This is a matter of life and death,” Angela Lorio, a Baton Rouge mother whose 2½ year-old son John Paul relies on state funds for his medical needs, told the Ways and Means Committee on Wednesday. John Paul lives with a feeding tube and a tracheotomy. “If we do not raise revenue, some of our kids will die. We cannot handle all the expenses without the Medicaid help. Are you going to listen to big business or listen to our kids?”
During the session’s first week, nearly all of the action took place before the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee and Henry’s Appropriations Committee.
In Ways and Means, the committee has been getting presentations from legislators sponsoring the tax increases — nearly all of the legislators have been Democrats — while getting pushback from business interests that benefit from corporate loopholes that the Edwards administration wants to trim or eliminate.
In the Appropriations Committee, lawmakers have been getting dire warnings — by Lorio, university presidents and others — of the hurt that would occur if the Legislature doesn’t raise enough new revenue.
Several Republicans in Ways and Means objected to proposed tax measures while numerous Republicans in Appropriations questioned proposed spending cuts — prompting Democrats to grouse that Republicans are trying to have it both ways.
The Senate has had little to do because revenue-raising bills must originate in the House under the state Constitution. Other than inviting Senate President John Alario to the Governor’s Mansion for a lunch of hamburgers last weekend, Edwards has had little need to involve senators because they are believed to be willing to support his tax increases.
The state Senate did take one vote, an easy lift, when it unanimously approved Edwards’ proposal to close this year’s deficit by taking $128 million from the state rainy day fund and $200 million from a settlement with BP.
“We’ve done what we could,” Alario, R-Westwego, said Saturday.
Along with $160 million in cuts already approved by Edwards and the Legislature, the Senate vote indicates that the Legislature is likely to close at least $488 million of the $900 million shortfall.
After the waiting game during the first week, the pace of activity will now accelerate. The Ways and Means Committee is expected to begin voting Monday on Edwards’ tax increases, after meeting Sunday afternoon to hear testimony on more of his administration’s bills. Bills that are approved then go to the full House.
Besides the one penny sales tax increase, the governor is asking lawmakers to increase taxes on cigarettes, alcohol and telephones while eliminating a variety of tax breaks for individuals and corporations and reducing corporate and income tax rates slightly. All of the tax measures would raise about $350 million.
The biggest question mark is the penny sales tax increase because it would raise the most money, $220 million in the final three months before the fiscal year ends June 30 and $900 million the following year. Numerous Republicans have voiced their opposition to the measure, House Bill 62 by state Rep. Katrina Jackson, D-Monroe.
Ultimately, most of the tax measures will require a two-thirds vote in both the House and the Senate. That means the magic numbers will be 70 in the 105-member House and 26 in the 39-member Senate. Republicans hold a majority in both chambers.
Alario said he wants to have the full House approve the tax and spending measures by Wednesday morning so senators can begin considering them that afternoon, or about mid-way through the special session.
The timeline means that the next several days will particularly test the political skills of Henry, a business consultant; Harris, a businessman who owns convenience stores, truck stops and farmland; House Speaker Taylor Barras, R-New Iberia, a banker; and state Rep. Neil Abramson, D-New Orleans, an oil and gas attorney.
“After the last three days, I am more hopeful than I was at the beginning of the week,” Barras said Thursday night, in comments echoed by Harris and Henry. The latter two men have a history of working with Edwards during the past four years — when he served in the state House — to win approval for ideas opposed by Gov. Bobby Jindal.
Seeking to build upon those ties, Edwards invited Henry for a dinner of baked chicken, dirty rice and asparagus last Saturday night at the Governor’s Mansion.
Henry and other Republicans have praised Edwards’ efforts to reach out to them, which mark a sharp contrast to the minimal interest that Jindal showed to the ideas of Democratic and Republican lawmakers alike during the past four years.
Meanwhile, House Democrats are working to convince their Republican colleagues to support tax increases in case Barras, Harris and Henry say no to them. State Rep. Gene Reynolds, D-Minden, the leader of the Democratic House Caucus, hosted a bipartisan group of eight lawmakers Thursday afternoon at his Spanish Town apartment.
“We worked on a compromise package that would provide a solution to the financial mess we’re in,” Reynolds said, adding that he believes 20 Republicans in the House are dead-set against all tax increases.
Amidst all of the political and fiscal uncertainty, one thing is clear beginning Monday: House members are facing a series of tough votes.
“No cuts are going to be popular with everybody,” said state Rep. Tony Bacala, R-Prairieville. “Tax increases won’t be popular with everybody. If we’re waiting for the popular idea, we’re not going to find it.”
For up-to-the-minute news from the Louisiana Legislature, state and federal government follow our Politics Blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog/. Follow Tyler Bridges on Twitter, @tegbridges.