Louisiana public colleges, universities supporting tax plan to avoid spending cuts to higher education _lowres

Advocate Photo by MARK BALLARD -- State Reps John Bel Edwards, D-Amite, standing, and Joel Robideaux, R-Lafayette, review a list of technical questions Monday raised about the SAVE Credit Program legislation.

Leaders of Louisiana’s public colleges and universities turned up the pressure Monday on getting a House legislative committee chairman to consider a measure that they say is necessary to prevent deep spending cuts to their institutions next year.

But state Rep. Joel Robideaux, R-Lafayette, refused to budge Monday, saying in an interview that he won’t have his Ways and Means Committee take up the measure until the Senate Finance Committee has heard a batch of tax bills already approved by the House.

At stake is Senate Bill 284, whose fate could determine whether Gov. Bobby Jindal will veto the budget that legislators are moving to adopt for next year.

Robideaux said that SB284, a convoluted tax scheme involving higher education, has too many unanswered questions, a view echoed by numerous legislators. The House also needs to know exactly how much new revenue that Senate Finance will approve.

On Sunday, Robideaux abruptly canceled a hearing scheduled to consider the measure on Monday. It’s not clear whether it has enough support on Ways and Means and the full House floor.

Higher education leaders called Ways and Means members and Robideaux over the weekend and Monday to get the bill heard. Roy O. Martin, who chairs the Board of Regents, which oversees higher education in Louisiana, briefed House Republicans on SB284 in a private session at noon Monday.

Ways and Means could take up SB284 later in the week. The Senate committee will begin hearing the tax bills Tuesday night and probably will need a day or two to hear all of them, said its committee chairman, Sen. Jack Donahue, R-Mandeville, who is also the sponsor of SB284.

The measure’s passage is so important because, under complicated policy rules that Jindal is following, it would allow him to accept tax measures already approved by the House that would raise as much as $615 million next year. But if SB284 is not approved, Jindal would likely veto the budget.

Since adoption of the 1974 state constitution, no governor has vetoed the entire state budget, said C.B. Forgotston, an attorney and budget expert.

“I just don’t want to take the chance of that happening,” Martin said in an interview. “We’re playing with fire.”

Legislators could enact the budget by overriding Jindal’s veto, but no one was sure Monday whether the minimum two-thirds vote exists in both the House and the Senate to do that.

State legislators have overridden governors on only two bills since 1974, and neither concerned the state budget.

The stakes are growing because the Legislature adjourns at 6 p.m. on June 11. The House has passed its version of the budget, which is now before the Senate Finance Committee.

“We got time,” Senate President John Alario, R-Westwego, said in an interview. “But I’m concerned about them not approving the SAVE bill.”

Earlier in the session, Alario said concerns over how to solve the budget crisis were leading to sleepless nights. He said he now needs half a sleeping pill “to shut down my brain.”

In drafting next year’s budget, lawmakers are planning to close a projected deficit of $1.6 billion through a combination of spending cuts and measures that would raise at least $615 million in new revenue. Legislators are at least $300 million short, with state money for the WISE workforce development program and for the new hospital in New Orleans among the shortfalls.

SB284 would set up what higher education leaders call the SAVE fund. The measure would impose a fee of, perhaps, $1,500 per student on the 220,000 students in Louisiana’s higher education system. But the students wouldn’t actually pay the fee because lawmakers would also create an offsetting tax credit. Both the fee and the tax credit would essentially be phantom, existing only on paper.

But the phantom money generated by the phantom tax credit — about $350 million per year — would allow Jindal to accept a significant portion of the $615 million in higher revenue already approved. Under guidelines issued by the Americans for Tax Reform, a Washington, D.C.-based group, the creation of tax credits offsets tax increases.

Jindal has said he would veto the budget if it contains what ATR deems as a net tax increase.

“The SAVE fund prevents that from happening,” Martin said.

He said that higher education leaders fear that a veto will lead to deep cuts in next year’s state aid — unless the veto were overridden.

Besides the higher education leaders, Ways and Means members report getting calls from the Governor’s Office, but not from Jindal, who was in New Hampshire on Monday, in advance of his expected announcement for president once the legislative session ends.

Robideaux said he decided to defer consideration of SB284 on his own, without the approval of House Speaker Chuck Kleckley, R-Lake Charles.

“This is just me doing what I think I need to do, to give us more time,” Robideaux said.

Asked whether he is playing a legislative game of chicken with the Senate, he said no. “It’s more like chess,” he said.

On Sunday, Robideaux sent Donahue and Ways and Means members a list of 20 technical questions that he wants to get answered. Among them: Could creation of the SAVE fund harm the state’s credit rating? Would the creation of the tax credit create an income tax liability for students?

Robideaux said he is hearing from legislators, the Governor’s Office and higher education leaders.

“This is as vigorous a lobbying effort as I’ve experienced,” said Robideaux, who is in his 12th and final year in the House because of term limits. “I’m not feeling any pressure,” he added. “When you’re doing the right thing, you don’t feel any pressure.”

Follow Tyler Bridges on Twitter, @TegBridges. For more coverage of the State Capitol, follow Louisiana Politics at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog/.