It’s game time.
Members of the Louisiana House on Thursday will provide the first measure of the Legislature’s willingness to raise slightly more than $1 billion in taxes that legislative leaders say is needed to prevent gutting the state’s colleges and universities and public health care system next year.
According to an internal House document obtained by The Advocate Wednesday, the representatives will vote on 13 separate tax bills selected by their leaders. They are from among about two dozen tax measures approved by the Ways and Means Committee during the past three weeks. Passing all 13 measures would raise anywhere from $550 million to $1.01 billion per year, according to an updated version of the document.
In all, lawmakers are facing a $1.6 billion budget deficit if they kept funding next year for all state programs at the current spending level. The more taxes they raise during the legislative session, the less they have to cut funding for higher education, public health care for the poor, state parks and museums, and the state’s forest firefighters, among other things.
No one on Wednesday could be sure which taxes — or how much — the House will approve on Thursday, setting up a high-stakes battle without a clear result.
Business lobbies oppose almost all of the measures, as does Gov. Bobby Jindal of any bills he deems a net tax increase, under guidelines from the anti-tax group Americans for Tax Reform that are not entirely clear to lawmakers.
The House gets underway at 10 a.m. and is expected to go all day, unless lawmakers begin defeating the bills.
“Tomorrow will be a doozy,” Rep. Rob Shadoin, R-Ruston, said Wednesday. “We need some kind of tote board like you see at a charity telethon fundraiser so as we pass or not pass measures, we can see how far we have to move toward the ultimate goal.”
The 13 bills that the House is scheduled to vote on would raise taxes on consumers and cigarette smokers; pare tax breaks for movie producers and solar energy installations; and trim nine other tax breaks enjoyed by an array of businesses and high-income people.
House leaders say they can pass all but two of the measures with 53 votes, a majority, in the 105-member House. Raising the cigarette tax and repealing 1-cent of the sales tax exemptions would need at least 70 votes, or two-thirds.
“It’s all about shared responsibility, money coming from a lot of sources,” said Bernie Pinsonat, a political consultant who handles legislators’ election campaigns. “You can’t scalp anybody. The public can buy that.”
The full Legislature must approve a balanced budget by June 11, the session’s final day. Thursday’s votes are the initial major step in that process.
“The first act sets the stage for the rest of the play,” Sen. Robert Adley, R-Benton, said in an interview, underscoring the importance of what happens Thursday.
Whichever tax bills the House passes will move to the Senate, which can kill or amend them to raise more or less revenue. At some point in the coming weeks, the tax bills passed by the Senate will go back to the House for its approval.
In Washington, D.C., big tax votes almost always break upon partisan lines. That won’t happen Thursday.
Democrats and Republicans have voted out tax bills from Ways and Means. And while Democrats have traditionally been more supportive of tax increases, the House leadership making the push Thursday is Republican.
Seven of the 13 bills targeted by legislative leaders are sponsored by Republicans, while Democrats — both white and African-American — are sponsoring the other six. Legislative leaders had said they would deliberately choose a diverse group of sponsors.
In Louisiana, votes often divide upon whether legislators are members of the governor’s team or not, regardless of party. That won’t be the case either on Thursday.
Instead, legislators said Wednesday, the votes will reflect temporary alliances that can change from bill to bill and amendment to amendment.
At a private meeting of the House Republican delegation Wednesday morning, its chairman, Rep. Lance Harris, of Alexandria, presented background information and didn’t seek to count votes or enforce party discipline.
“There’s not an organized position on any of this,” said Rep. Brett Geymann, R-Lake Charles, a leader of the anti-spending group known as the fiscal hawks that has not been caucusing this session. “My best guess is that each vote comes down to each individual measure, whether a member feels comfortable voting for it, depending on their district.”
Party politics could break out. Rep. John Bel Edwards, D-Amite, warned House Speaker Chuck Kleckley, R-Lake Charles, that if not enough Republicans support taxes on the early votes, Democrats will start voting against the later measures.
If that happens, the bills will die and the House will adjourn earlier than expected, state Rep. Joel Robideaux, R-Lafayette and the architect of the tax package, said Thursday morning before the House session began. The House Appropriations Committee will then have to make the feared deep cuts to public colleges and universities and health care when it meets Monday to craft the Legislature’s first version of the budget, Robidaux added.
“Today could be like the ending of a Quentin Tarantino movie,” Robideaux said, “where we’re all pointing our weapons at each other threatening to pull the trigger. Hopefully that won’t happen.”
In all, legislative leaders want to raise $880 million to prevent budget cuts for next year. Of that, $206 million would go for health care; $50 million would provide extra money for K-12 public schools statewide; and $50 million would go for tourism, the Secretary of State’s Office, the Department of Agriculture and other state programs.
Of the $880 million, the largest amount — $573 million — would go to Louisiana’s colleges and universities to give them the same amount of funding next year as in 2015. If no taxes are raised to cover the $573 million, the institutions would face an 82 percent funding loss from this year, which they have described as the “doomsday” scenario.
They would suffer a 30 percent cut in state aid next year if the Legislature ultimately comes up with only $372 million of the $573 million.
F. King Alexander, LSU’s president and chancellor, told Ways and Means on Monday that the university would have to cancel 2,200 courses taken by its 44,000 students with a 30 percent cut in state aid for next year.
A 30 percent cut in funding would cause Louisiana’s community and technical colleges to lose $38 million in funding, resulting in the loss of 750 jobs and possibly the closure of two of its 13 institutions.
“We have to find a way, or we’re cutting jobs and services and we’re potentially having facility closures,” said Rep. Tom Willmott, R-Kenner, who voted against most of the tax measures in Ways and Means. “The situation has put us in a pickle.” Willmott said new information might prompt him to vote for some of the tax bills on Thursday.
The measures up for a vote include:
House Bills 624, 629 and 635 by state Rep. Katrina Jackson, D-Monroe, which would raise up to $188 million by cutting 20 percent of tax credits, rebates, exclusions and exemptions across the board for corporations and individuals.
House Bill 768 by state Rep. Jay Morris, R-Monroe, which would raise $181 million by removing a host of exemptions from 1 cent of the state sales tax.
House Concurrent Resolution 8 by state Rep. Jack Montoucet, D-Crowley, which would raise up to $177 million by removing an exemption from 1 cent of the state sales tax that businesses enjoy when they pay their utility bills.
House Bill 829 by Robideaux would be amended to cap the state’s 30 to 35 percent tax subsidy for movies and television at an annual cost of $150 million. The program cost $226 million last year. Lawmakers from metro New Orleans and Baton Rouge are expected to provide the strongest opposition to the measure because most of the movies and shows are shot there.
House Bill 805 by state Rep. Bryan Adams, R-Terrytown, which would eliminate 25 percent of the tax refunds that businesses get from state government when they have an excess tax liability after paying the inventory tax to local governments. This is the only measure that Jindal clearly supports because he considers the tax refunds to be “corporate welfare.”
House Bill 119 by state Rep. Harold Ritchie, D-Bogalusa, which would raise Louisiana’s cigarette tax by 32 cents to match Mississippi’s 68-cent per pack rate. Ritchie has been carrying a “tick sheet” over the past two days to have a running tally of whether he has the 70 votes needed to pass the measure.
Follow Tyler Bridges on Twitter @TegBridges. For more coverage of the state capitol, follow Louisiana Politics at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog/.