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Gov. John Bel Edwards gathers his thought before speaking at a press conference after the legislature adjourned sine die to end the special session to address the state's fiscal crisis Monday March 5, 2018, in Baton Rouge, La.


When the regular legislative session ended last year, lawmakers adjourned without mustering the political will to pass a budget, the one task they had to complete. Gov. John Bel Edwards had to call a special session so they could pass the budget eight days later.

The governor called lawmakers into a special session once again two weeks ago, this time, he said, to pass enough revenue to stave off deep budget cuts later in the year to programs that provide TOPS scholarships to students, fund local jails run by sheriffs, provide home health care for severely disabled children and finance hospitals that serve the poor. The amount of new revenue was later estimated to be nearly $700 million.

The special session collapsed Monday, with lawmakers in the House no closer to solving the problem, having shot down each revenue-raising bill, for different political and philosophical reasons. Democrats and Republicans each were left blaming the other, with each side demonstrating a distinct lack of trust in the other.

“We’ve lost something, members, we’ve lost our way,” state Rep. Walt Leger III, D-New Orleans, told his colleagues in the special session’s waning minutes Monday evening.

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Matt Houston/LSU Manship School News Service

Legislative veterans said they had never seen the Legislature become so dysfunctional – which will be a roadblock to finally fixing the budget problem – known inside the State Capitol as the “fiscal cliff" – when lawmakers reconvene in yet another special session in June.

State Sen. President John Alario, R-Westwego, has served longer than anyone else in the state Legislature, since 1972, when Richard Nixon was president.

“We’re moving to be like Washington,” Alario said in an interview. “It’s happened in the past decade. We’re moving to be more partisan. One group pushes so much. The other says, ‘Wait a minute, we got to stand up, too.’ It becomes a loggerhead, and everybody stops.”

State Sen. Francis Thompson, D-Delhi, the second longest serving legislator, offered a similar take in an interview.

“I have never seen this go on,” said Thompson, who has served in the Legislature since 1974. “Never did we not get along.”

It’s not that legislators don’t get along personally. During long stretches of inactivity on the House floor during the past week, Democrats and Republicans congregated together to share stories and a laugh or two.

State Rep. Robby Carter, D-Greensburg, called over two Republicans Monday afternoon to tell a ribald joke that left all three doubled over in laughter.

Instead, the lack of trust in the House became obvious Sunday night during the most basic form of legislating – which bills would be heard.

Republicans insisted on taking up first a bill they supported (House Bill 23) that would have renewed one-fourth of a 1-cent sales tax that expires on June 30. The amount at stake was not large. A family earning $25,000 or less would pay about $40 in higher sales taxes per year while a family earning $100,000 to $125,000 would pay about $65 more per year.

By also making permanent the closure of some sales tax loopholes, the measure would have raised about $290 million for the new fiscal year that begins on July 1.

During the debate, Democrats warned the bill’s sponsor, state Rep. Stephen Dwight, R-Lake Charles, that the measure would die, from a lack of Democratic support, unless Republicans moved first instead to take up House Bill 8, favored by Democrats. HB8 would have closed an income tax break worth $400 to $600 per year for households that earn at least $200,000 per year. It would have raised $79 million next year for the state treasury.

With Republicans insisting on HB23 going first, lawmakers smacked down Dwight’s bill, 33-70. The votes both for and against were bipartisan, reflecting the original plan agreed to by the leaders of both parties: to pass the bill in a bipartisan fashion with at least 70 votes, a two-thirds majority.

In the end, neither side trusted the other to provide the votes necessary to pass both bills.

Afterward, Speaker Taylor Barras, R-New Iberia, blamed a vote on Friday in which HB8 failed to pass by only three votes when four members of the Legislative Black Caucus unexpectedly voted against it. Members of the caucus had been the loudest voices in pushing for more revenue to prevent the budget cuts so the four votes seemed paradoxical.

“That was a pivotal turning point,” Barras told reporters. “That annoyed quite a few Republicans.”

State Rep. Cedric Glover, D-Shreveport, who was one of the black caucus members who voted against HB8, defended his vote and said the bigger problem was too many Republican extremists have won election to the House because of redistricting.

“They replaced members who had the ability to bridge the gap between those on the far left and the far right,” said Glover, who previously served in the House from 1996-2006.

State Rep. Lance Harris, of Alexandria and the Republican caucus leader, said the problem was that Democrats kept introducing new demands and Republicans finally had to say no, in explaining why they insisted on voting on HB23 first on Sunday night.

“The goalposts changed at every meeting,” Harris said in an interview.

One of the key questions as the special session began was whether Barras could corral enough Republicans to vote for tax measures.

In an interview, Barras said he had kept his bargain, having helped muscle the two tax bills out of the anti-tax Ways and Means Committee.

Edwards said Barras didn’t.

Speaking to reporters and legislators after the special session ended, the governor said Barras had told him before the special session began that the speaker had rounded up enough Republican votes to pass $572 million of new revenue. But he didn’t deliver the promised votes, Edwards said.

“The speaker went back on his word,” the governor said in choosing to criticize Barras in harsh language that he has avoided previously. “As a result, for the second time in as many years … not a single bill to address the (fiscal) cliff moved out of the House of Representatives for consideration of the Senate. It’s completely unacceptable. We have to do better. So it’s back to the drawing board.”

In answering a reporter's question, Edwards said he agreed with three Republican House members who said publicly Friday night that they thought some of their colleagues are trying to sabotage the governor’s efforts to fill the budget gap to weaken him in advance of his re-election campaign next year.

Minutes earlier, U.S. Sen. John Kennedy, a Republican who appears to be moving to challenge Edwards, emailed a press release to reporters.

“I commend House Republicans for saving Louisiana families from Gov. Edwards’ tax increases,” Kennedy said. “This special session was a missed opportunity for meaningful budget reforms, and the fault lies with Gov. Edwards and Democrats for refusing to fully embrace those basic budget reforms.”

Follow Tyler Bridges on Twitter, @tegbridges.