Louisiana voters: You OK if certain fiscal matters come up annually during legislative sessions? New bills broach topic _lowres

Advocate Photo by MARK BALLARD -- Senate & Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Karen Peterson, D-New Orleans, left, oversees the vote Wednesday on her measure to ask voters to allow legislators to consider tax increases whenever the Louisiana Legislature meets and not just every other year as is the case now. State Sens. Wesley Bishop. D-New Orleans, center, and Mike Walsworth, R-West Monroe, await another committee member to arrive in the hearing room to cast his vote.

Louisiana legislators were handed a nearly $900 million budget deficit when they took the oath of office Jan. 11, but because of the state Constitution, they can’t consider revenue-raising measures during the 60-day legislative session currently underway.

Some lawmakers are now attempting to change that — or at least broach the topic.

The Senate & Governmental Affairs Committee on Wednesday advanced two separate bills that would ask voters to decide whether certain fiscal matters can come up every year — rather than just odd-numbered years.

“Sometimes, like this year, we’re going to have tremendous financial situations pop up,” said state Sen. J.P. Morrell, a New Orleans Democrat who sponsored Senate Bill 25 — one of the two bills that are now heading to the full Senate for consideration. “Short-sighted special sessions to deal with our regular fiscal matters just doesn’t make sense.”

The other bill is Senate Bill 163.

The Louisiana House would also have to agree to putting the proposal on a statewide ballot.

State lawmakers met in a 25-day special session in the run up to the regular session’s start, costing taxpayers at least $1 million, to consider budget measures.

Now, state leaders are bracing for yet another special session when the regular session ends in June to address the remaining $750 million gap in the state’s finances for the budget that begins July 1.

“We didn’t do as well as we should have in the special session,” Gov. John Bel Edwards said this week. “I believe there will be another opportunity for the Legislature later this year in another special session to raise more revenue so that we don’t have to go forward with that level of draconian cuts.”

Business groups that oppose tax hikes, including the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry and the National Federation of Independent Business, oppose the move, as do several Republican legislators. They argue that it would give lawmakers more opportunities to increase taxes.

Sen. Jim Fannin, R-Jonesboro, said he would rather see the Legislature move to a biannual schedule, like Texas, meeting only once every other year.

But those who want to free up the existing yearly legislative sessions to more topics argue that, after being sworn in during an even-numbered year, they aren’t able to immediately consider budget solutions during the session.

“If we would have had this bill last year, we wouldn’t have had a special session and saved the taxpayers some money,” said Sen. Greg Tarver, D-Shreveport.

Without the revenue-generating measures, Edwards’ administration is currently putting together a budget that reflects the $750 million shortfall because the budget has to be balanced by the end of the regular session. That means action taken during a special session later this year could render the budget document drafted this session worthless before it takes effect.

Edwards’ administration, in his executive budget proposal, is expected to show lawmakers what a 30 percent cut would look like for every agency except for some essential priorities including corrections, higher education and health care, which would see about a 10 percent cut. The plan is expected to be unveiled on April 8.

“It’s not going to be pretty,” Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne said during a recent meeting of a new task force on the budget.

Dardenne offered some insight into how the plan is being formed. He said that some agencies that used across-the-board cuts to illustrate the impact — a practice that the state has routinely turned to in times of budget crisis — have been told to return to the drawing board.

“We’re not going to do that anymore,” Dardenne said.

Instead, Dardenne said the administration asked leaders to thoughtfully review how they could implement the deep cuts — including whether they could eliminate entire functions.

“It’s a huge number — $750 million less,” Edwards said after a speech Tuesday. “It’s not the kind of budget we want to put forward.”

Follow Elizabeth Crisp on Twitter, @elizabethcrisp.

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