Gov. John Bel Edwards and his political allies face an uphill battle in gathering the additional votes needed to pass a major tax bill in the next special legislative session, which begins June 18.
Edwards and most members of the state Senate favored a bill during the just-completed special session that would have renewed a 1/2-cent of an expiring 1-cent sales tax and suspended several sales tax breaks. The extra money would have funded programs facing budget shortfalls: public colleges and universities, the TOPS scholarship, housing for prisoners and pre-kindergarten classes.
House Bill 12 won 63 votes in the 105-member House in the final minutes of the special session Monday night, but that was seven fewer than the supermajority of 70 needed to pass tax bills. HB 12 would have raised $507 million in the fiscal year that begins July 1, and the 1/2-cent sales tax would have lasted until mid-2025. It would have fully funded the budget approved by lawmakers on Monday night.
HB12 was supported by 38 of the 40 Democrats, 22 of the 61 Republicans and all three political independents. (The House was short the seat held by state Rep. Mike Danahay, a Democrat who has left the House to become mayor of Sulphur.)
HB27 got three Democratic votes and the votes of only 33 Republicans, plus two of the three political independents
The only path for a future bill that preserves half of the penny sales tax goes through the 20 Republicans who voted for the smaller renewal on Monday night but not the 1/2-cent renewal.
Nearly all of those Republicans are either part of the conservative House Republican leadership or allies of the leaders.
Several said they are open-minded about voting for the 1/2-cent renewal during the upcoming special session.
“I’m not committed to being one way or the other,” said state Rep. Johnny Berthelot, R-Gonzales. “I’m still listening.”
Berthelot said he’s gotten a mixed reaction to the House’s failure to pass either tax bill Monday night.
“Some say: ‘Thanks for holding the line, thanks for not giving in,’” Berthelot said. “Others say: ‘Why not vote for the half (penny renewal)? It’s not a big difference.’”
Indeed, it’s not.
Someone purchasing $100 of goods would have to pay 17 cents more with a 1/2-cent renewal versus the 1/3-cent renewal.
“If I believe we’re not growing government, I’m willing to fund the essential government services we need,” said state Rep. Stephen Dwight, R-Lake Charles, another of the 20 who voted for the 1/3-cent renewal but not the 1/2-cent.
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Dwight said having more time to study the contents of HB12 might have given him the comfort to vote for the 1/2-cent renewal.
“I couldn’t tell where the money was going because everything was happening so quickly,” he said, referring to Monday night’s chaotic events, when the House had no time to debate either tax bill as the clock ticked toward the midnight close of the special session.
For Nicholas Muscarello Jr., a Republican from Hammond who just took office after winning a special election, the key to getting his vote for the 1/2-cent renewal is to ensure Southeastern Louisiana University gets more funding.
“I campaigned on saying I would protect Southeastern,” Muscarello said. “That’s uppermost on my mind.”
State Rep. Jean-Paul Coussan, R-Lafayette, said he’s open-minded.
“I’ll consider what gets to the floor,” he said.
At least one of the 20 Republicans expressed doubts that he could vote for the 1/2-cent renewal.
“It would be very hard for me to get there,” said state Rep. John Stefanski, R-Crowley. “I would have to be confident that there was a reduction in government spending. We have a duty to make sure we are reducing government in line with what the private sector is doing.”
Another one ruled it out.
“At some point, you’ve got to put your foot down,” said state Rep. Kirk Talbot, R-River Ridge, who said he believes the 1/3-cent renewal he supported represented a compromise position. It would force about $100 million in budget cuts next year. “You better start tightening the belt now because Medicaid will cost us more in the future.”
State Rep. Paula Davis, R-Baton Rouge, is the only House member who voted for HB27 when it was first before the House on May 28, and passed with 76 votes, but then voted against HB27 and HB12 on Monday night. She did not return two phone calls on Friday.
In all, 19 House Republicans voted against both tax bills on Monday night. Two of them have supported tax measures in the past but doubt they would vote for the ½-cent renewal in the next special session.
State Rep. Jay Morris, of Monroe, said he could support a sales tax renewal only if it were accompanied by cuts in business tax subsidies, while State Rep. Barry Ivey said he wants any sales tax renewal to be part of comprehensive tax reform. The chances of either legislator getting his wish are slim.
The 63 who voted for the 1/2-cent sales tax renewal seem solid in their support.
"I want to make sure that higher education and TOPS are fully funded," said state Rep. Franklin Foil, R-Baton Rouge, who traditionally votes against tax measures. "I have a lot of kids in my district who attend LSU on TOPS."
The push to pass the 1/2-cent renewal will pick up one vote from state Rep. Julie Stokes, R-Kenner, who initially voted for HB12 on Monday night but, immediately after the vote count was announced at 64, switched to no. This meant the final recorded vote was 63-41. Stokes said she switched only so she could make the parliamentary move to seek a revote on the bill minutes later, a move that failed in the final minute of the special session.
The push to pass the 1/2-cent renewal will lose one vote with the retirement of state Rep. Gene Reynolds, D-Minden, to become state parks director in the lieutenant governor’s office. The 70-vote threshold remains even if House seats are unfilled.
State Rep. Greg Cromer voted for the 1/2-cent renewal and has been elected mayor of Slidell. But he will be able to vote again because his resignation as a legislator doesn’t take effect until June 29, two days after the scheduled end of the special session.
The two Democrats who voted against HB12 (and also HB27) were state Rep. Neil Abramson, of New Orleans, and state Rep. Cedric Glover, of Shreveport.
Glover said he is unlikely to vote in favor of the next sales tax measure because he wants the Legislature to raise more revenue by revising income tax laws, something Republicans in the House have blocked. Sales taxes are regressive and hit the poor harder than income taxes, Glover noted.
Abramson, who often votes against Democratic-supported measures, didn’t respond to two emails seeking his views.
Edwards expressed optimism that he and his allies will find the 70 votes.
“We just got a little more work to do,” he told reporters immediately after the special session ended.
But state Rep. Lance Harris expressed his doubts. Harris heads the Republican House Caucus and sponsored HB27.
“It will take at least 30 Republicans,” he said, or eight more than on Monday night.