It was no, no, no, no. It was no, again and again.
State legislators said no to a task force’s recommendations to fix an “inefficient and broken” tax system. They said no to addressing a looming budget deficit of about $1 billion. They said no to raising the gas tax to pay for better roads and bridges.
And, during a chaotic finish to the 60-day regular session Thursday, they said no to reaching a deal on the budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1.
The final no left legislators with the result that everybody said they didn’t want — yet another special session on the budget, which began at 6:30 p.m. Thursday.
Minutes later, Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, seized the post-regular session narrative by declaring to reporters: “We just witnessed an epic failure in leadership. The House leadership clearly chose party politics ahead of the people’s business, over the needs of the people of Louisiana.”
Senate President John Alario, R-Westwego, offered a more subdued take.
“It was our responsibility to get it done, and we didn’t,” he said in an interview. “There’s probably enough blame that can go around.”
House Republicans pinned the blame on Alario and Edwards, who belong to different political parties but are allied. Alario and Edwards, the House Republicans said, were stuck on spending 100 percent of the anticipated available money, while House Republicans favored cutting out $100 million to provide a cushion in the event of a revenue shortfall.
“The people of Louisiana won because we didn’t raise taxes,” Rep. Alan Seabaugh, R-Shreveport, said in an interview. “In the budget fiasco, there wasn’t a winner.”
The Council for a Better Louisiana, a government policy advocacy nonprofit based in Baton Rouge, offered this view on Friday: “There’s plenty of culpability to go around on a variety of fronts, but at the end of the day, it’s politics, and that’s what the public says it’s so tired of. The point is that people expect their government to work. They’re not paying attention to all the details of the infighting. They just want it to work. Sadly, that wasn’t the case this session.”
After a dramatic breakdown in budget negotiations, the Louisiana Legislature finds itself in…
The House and Senate — both under Republican leadership — ended up being divided over a mere $50 million in the $9.5 billion part of the budget that involves state taxes, tuition and fees.
Now legislators are engaged in a special session that costs state taxpayers $60,000 per day and has to end by June 19. But, as Rep. Chris Broadwater, R-Hammond, pointed out, “Our options won’t be much different.”
The regular session’s failures went deeper than the spectacular ending, which saw the House in an uproar over a last-minute effort by Democrats to force a vote on the budget — and a regular session then concluding without an approved budget for the first time in 17 years. Approving a budget bill before July 1 is something the Legislature must do each year.
When the session began April 10, the onus of responsibility fell on the Republicans, given their majority in each house. They had insisted in 2016 on passing temporary tax increases — including a penny increase in the sales tax — to set up a “fiscal cliff” that they would theoretically have to address in 2017 — the last time the Legislature could raise or renew taxes during a regular session before the temporary taxes vanish on July 1, 2018.
To help with that task, the Legislature in 2016 created a task force to issue recommendations to improve the tax system and also provide solutions to avoid the fiscal cliff. The task force called for ending tax exemptions that had proliferated in recent years while also reducing tax rates.
Addressing the task force’s recommendations fell to the House Republican leadership because the tax measures would have to begin in the House Ways and Means Committee, chaired by Rep. Neil Abramson, a Democrat from New Orleans who is often allied with the Republicans.
Less than two weeks before the session began, Edwards questioned whether House Republicans would address the fiscal cliff.
“The only thing you hear from them is ‘no,’ without a plan,” Edwards told The Advocate at the time. “I’m disappointed but not surprised. What I’m asking them to do is hard. It’s unpleasant. But it’s necessary. They have the prerogative to vote no. But if they do that without their own plan, they are not serious.”
House Speaker Taylor Barras, R-New Iberia, in an interview then, said a number of Republicans would offer revenue-raising bills that, taken together, would constitute an overall plan, in his view. (Barras did not return a phone call on Friday.)
Rep. Lance Harris, of Alexandria, who heads the House Republican caucus, said his group’s focus would be on clamping down on spending, even though he had convened a working group of legislators to examine the tax system and offer recommendations for change.
Under the lead of Rep. Cameron Henry, R-Metairie, who chairs the Appropriations Committee, the House passed a budget that would spend only 97.5 percent of the money forecast to be available for the upcoming fiscal year. Republicans said the state needed a cushion — which would amount to $206 million under their proposed budget — because the state for years has collected less money than anticipated and has had to enact midyear budget cuts as a result.
Harris told reporters that the House Republican budget would address half of the fiscal cliff. But the House leadership never offered a comprehensive tax plan. (Harris declined an interview request for this article.)
Consistent with a focus only on spending, the Ways and Means Committee shot down every tax proposal supported by Edwards that mirrored the task force’s recommendations.
The committee did support changes to the income tax code sponsored by two Republicans — Reps. Barry Ivey, of Central, and Julie Stokes, of Kenner — that came from the task force’s recommendations. But the task force called for income tax measures to produce more dollars, while the Ivey and Stokes bills were revenue-neutral — a requirement to win the House’s approval.
In the end, both bills died in a Senate committee whose members cited the need for comprehensive tax reform, not “piecemeal” measures.
A task force spent 2016 studying the tax system, issued a comprehensive set of recommendatio…
Meanwhile, Rep. Steve Carter, R-Baton Rouge, pushed a plan to raise the gas tax by up to 17 cents per gallon to expand roadways to reduce traffic congestion and repair roads and bridges — which another task force had called an urgent need.
The state Republican Party and outside conservative groups said no to a tax hike and forced Carter to admit defeat without calling a vote.
The push to raise the state gasoline tax died because the Louisiana House has turned into a …
As Rep. Jay Morris, R-Monroe, explained it in an interview, the Republicans believe any extra money would simply feed a faceless government bureaucracy that is insatiable for more money. Morris and other lawmakers said constituents were telling them to oppose new taxes.
The Senate countered with a budget that would not cut higher education; would provide money for child care abuse cases and housing for foster children; would increase salaries for low-paid state workers in jobs with high turnover, including probation and parole officers; and would provide additional dollars for health care for the poor and disabled.
The House rejected the Senate budget, with Republicans supplying nearly all of the "no" votes.
That set the stage for the final day Thursday.
At 8 a.m., Barras walked the 20 steps from his office on the first floor of the State Capitol to the Senate president’s office. There, Barras presented a plan to Alario and Sen. Eric LaFleur, D-Ville Platte, who chairs the Finance Committee.
He said the House would agree to the Senate’s version of the budget to spend all of the money anticipated to be available next year, but the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government would be directed to withhold a total of $50 million to cover any revenue shortfall that might develop.
Barras’ idea satisfied senators, LaFleur said in an interview an hour after the meeting with Barras, because it would provide the spending they sought. It also won Edwards’ support, his aides said, because the governor had carried out a similar move during the current fiscal year, asking state agencies to set aside 5 percent of their money as a contingency.
Senators held out hope that Barras’ idea would win favor among enough Republicans in the House to pass.
The House Republicans caucused in the State Capitol basement at 10 a.m. Barras presented it not as his plan but as a potential idea. The conservatives rejected it, saying they wanted less spending and calling for a “win” against the Democratic governor, according to four lawmakers who were present. The conservatives insisted on actual cuts in the state budget, not the promise of money being set aside.
“A majority of House members don't want to spend 100 percent of a wrong number,” Henry told reporters.
By 5 p.m., one hour before adjournment, the leadership in neither the House nor the Senate was willing to budge from its position. Edwards told Alario he sided with the Senate.
Thirty minutes later, Rep. Walt Leger III, D-New Orleans, made a last-ditch effort to force the House leadership to permit the House to vote on the Senate’s version of the budget. Amid shouts from Democrats to allow a vote on it, Republicans blocked him, but two procedural votes indicated that Leger was close to having the votes and may even have had them.
“We did nothing to address the fiscal cliff,” Rep. Rob Shadoin, R-Ruston, said in an interview. “We did nothing to reform our budgetary process. And we did nothing on tax reform.
“Other than that,” he added, tongue firmly in cheek, “it’s been a successful session.”