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Speaker of the House Taylor Barras, R-New Iberia, left, and Senate President John Alario, R-Westwego, share a laugh after Gov. John Bel Edwards addressed the joint session during opening day at the Louisiana legislature Monday April 10, 2017, in Baton Rouge, La.

ADVOCATE STAFF PHOTO BY BILL FEIG

Two weeks into the 60 days of regular session, Louisiana House Republicans have settled on the broad outlines of how to balance next year’s state budget, with a standstill spending plan that they presented to two House Democratic leaders Thursday morning.

The two Democrats – state Rep. Gene Reynolds, of Minden, and Joseph Bouie, of New Orleans – said in interviews that they welcomed the meeting but said they are waiting for details on exactly which government services the House Republicans are proposing not to fund if the state spends no more next year than during the current year.

Meanwhile, the House Republicans have yet to figure out how to solve a knottier issue, how to head off the looming “fiscal cliff,” when $1.3 billion in temporary taxes will expire next year.

Gov. John Bel Edwards, who has been meeting with House Republican leaders this week in an attempt to forge a solution to the fiscal cliff, expressed frustration in a brief interview Thursday.

“There’s not even a semblance of a plan,” Edwards said, pausing before he stepped onto a State Capitol elevator. “They say they’ll let the process work and see where things end up. That’s the antithesis of a plan.”

The governor has complained since 2016 – his first year in office – that House Republicans have been unwilling to provide specifics, and he challenged them in his joint legislative address on April 10 to offer a plan if they didn’t like his proposals to balance next year’s budget and, separately, fix the fiscal cliff.

What and when the House Republicans propose their spending and tax plans is one of the major story lines during the legislative session, given the state’s chronic budget problems and the need for cooperation between a Democratic governor and Republicans who hold a majority in both the Senate and the House.

The focus is on Republicans in the House because, under the state Constitution, the House writes the first draft of the following year’s state budget, and revenue bills to prevent the fiscal cliff must originate in the House.

The focus is also on House Republicans because they declared their independence from the governor when they elected one of their own – state Rep. Taylor Barras, of New Iberia – as the speaker in January 2016, over Edwards’ preferred Democratic candidate, and pledged to put forth their own plans. 

The Senate, under its president, Sen. John Alario, R-Westwego, is more moderate than the House and works closely with the governor’s office. No one disputes Alario’s control of the Senate.

In an interview, Alario said he has yet to see the Legislature getting any closer to solving its budget problems.

“Maybe they’ll do something,” he said, referring to the House leadership. “It’s only the second week. It’s the nature of the beast that it doesn’t move until it has to on controversial things.”

The plan presented privately by Republicans Thursday would fund next year’s budget at 97.4 percent of the current year’s budget as of March 1, with an extra $92 million to fully fund the TOPS scholarships and to provide funding to continue aid for programs that serve medically fragile children.

State Rep. Cameron Henry, R-Metairie, who chairs the Appropriations Committee, did not respond to one text and two phone messages seeking an explanation.

Henry has been complaining that the governor’s proposed budget for next year includes spending on services and programs that the Legislature reduced during a special session earlier this year to balance the current year’s budget, which ends on June 30. It appears that the Republican plan would cut those services and programs, worth about $200 million.

Barras wasn’t forthcoming in a brief interview in a Capitol stairwell.

“The discussion on the budget will continue on the level of spending,” he said, adding that the House Ways and Means Committee is hearing tax bills. “We have multiple bills on all of those topics.”

Barras then hurried upstairs.

State Rep. Lance Harris of Alexandria, who heads the Republican House Caucus, said he was too busy to be interviewed and walked away.

Both Harris and Barras told The Advocate last week that House members were evaluating whether to approve a flat budget for next year.

Harris, Henry and Barras presented the Republican plan on Thursday to Reynolds and Bouie.

Reynolds, who chairs the House Democratic Caucus, said he appreciated hearing the Republicans’ ideas.

“At least the lines of communication are open,” Reynolds said. “We’re trying to find common ground. But we have to know what gets cuts and how deep they go, before we can get behind their plan.”

The Republicans will present their plan at next Thursday’s House Democratic caucus meeting. The Democrats number 41.

“We want to hear the rest of the plan,” said Bouie, who chairs the Legislative Black Caucus.

State Rep. Chris Broadwater, R-Hammond, said rank-and-file members are trying to find solutions.

“Discussions are happening across the aisle and among small groups,” he said. “I’m encouraged that that is happening.”

One thing that doesn’t seem to be happening is the commercial activity tax that Edwards has proposed to replace the temporary 1-cent increase in the state sales tax that legislators approved last year and that is scheduled to expire next year. The revenue that would disappear – about $850 million – from the expiration of that tax is a major part of the $1.3 billion fiscal cliff.

The Ways and Means Committee is scheduled on Monday to hear the commercial activity tax, which is a tax on corporate profits. Sponsored by state Rep. Sam Jones, D-Franklin, House Bill 628 would raise $800 million to $900 million per year and begin to hit companies that have gross sales above $1.5 million per year.

Business lobbyists have been rallying opposition to the measure. If the committee votes on Monday, it will likely kill the bill.

“I don’t really see it coming into play, at least as I’m hearing from colleagues on both sides of the aisle,” said Broadwater, in comments echoed by Reynolds.

Broadwater and Reynolds said that a solution to the fiscal cliff – if found – would have to involve some combination of raising more money, in part by closing tax exemptions, and cutting spending.

Elizabeth Crisp of The Advocate Capitol news bureau contributed to this report.

Follow Tyler Bridges on Twitter, @tegbridges.