The chairman of the House Republican Delegation says he believes the Louisiana Legislature can wrap up its work near mid-May to give time for a special session to address the looming "fiscal cliff" the state faces.
But citing the shrinking side of the budget hole that will be left when temporary tax measures expire June 30, Rep. Lance Harris, R-Alexandria, defended the GOP-controlled House's refusal to pass revenue-raising measures during a recent special session that ended without action.
"It was probably fate that led us to wait to get to this point to know exactly how much revenue it will take to fill the hole," Harris said during a meeting of the Press Club of Baton Rouge on Monday.
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State lawmakers are currently working to craft a budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1, but the state faces about a $648 million fiscal cliff, according to the state's official latest revenue projections. House Republican leaders say they believe that can be whittled down further to a $495 million gap.
Ahead of the special session, the state's fiscal cliff was estimated at nearly $1 billion.
"We would have extracted too many tax dollars from families," Harris said, if lawmakers had approved enough taxes to bridge the larger gap.
The current version of the budget, as approved by the state House, would mean deep cuts to health care that could shutter safetynet hospitals across the state and eliminate some programs for the elderly and disabled. It also would cut funding for the popular Taylor Opportunity Program for Students scholarships by about 20 percent.
It's unclear whether the Senate will pass its own version of House Bill 1, which carries the state's annual operating budget, before the end of the regular session.
Senate Finance Chair Eric LaFleur, D-Ville Platte, said during a Monday committee hearing that leaders are still considering their options but he hopes to reach a consensus among members on the best path forward next week when budget hearings are complete.
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Harris said he believes May 18 is a reasonable target date for the House to wrap up its regular session work, which is on track with the timeline that House Speaker Taylor Barras gave two weeks ago and again on Monday.
"By the third week of may, I think we'll be pretty close," Barras, R-New Iberia, said Monday.
He said that he expects the House to mostly wrap up work on bills originating in the lower chamber this week and is awaiting Senate action on House bills.
"Getting some of that back from the Senate will help determine (the timeline)," Barras said.
It's unclear what path the Legislature may take in another special session, which would be the sixth since February 2016, all addressing the state's perpetual budget issues.
Harris said he believes that measures in the special session that would have the best chance of House approval would be related to the sales tax.
"For me personally, income tax is out," he said. "I will not vote for anything when it comes to income taxes."
He said he thinks that the Legislature could agree to continuing a partial extension of the temporary sales tax hike that is scheduled to expire, as well as the removal of some sales tax exemptions currently on the books.
"That's going to be your two areas," he said.
He said he believes the Senate should pass a budget before the regular session's end and then fill in areas with additional revenue raised in a special session, contrary to a push from Gov. John Bel Edwards' administration's push to end early and hold the spending plan for the special session.
"We feel like on the House side it's important to know exactly what holes you have to fill when you ask members to vote on (revenue)," Harris said. "The most practical way of doing that is to go through the process."
"It saves us a lot of work and distraction in a special session if one is called," he added.