Repeatedly hitting a wall of opposition from House Republicans, Gov. John Bel Edwards is trying a new tactic for the next round of tax negotiations, telling GOP leaders to get behind a plan or get ready for the slash-and-burn budget cuts that come with inaction.
Gov. John Bel Edwards is facing the first of several key decisions centered on a single ques…
The Democratic governor was unable in the recently ended legislative session to persuade House Republicans to rally around tax options for filling a more than $1 billion budget hole in mid-2018.
Citing a heap of stalled tax bills, Edwards suggests the special session on taxes that he and other legislative leaders have said was inevitable to close that gap might not happen after all, unless he can get House buy-in for a tax plan.
"I will be looking for leadership in the House of Representatives to tell me that there is a plan that they're going to push toward. If there is not, why would we come back and do what we just did at the cost of $60,000 a day?" Edwards said.
It's unclear if that approach will break through the logjam Edwards has with House GOP leaders — or worsen the stalemate.
Alexandria Rep. Lance Harris, chairman of the House GOP delegation, said it's Edwards' job to devise ideas for addressing the shortfall and to try to persuade lawmakers.
"I'm a part-time legislator. I'll be working on some things, but I can't devote 100 percent of my time," Harris said. "He's the governor. He's the CEO. He certainly should come up with a plan."
Lawmakers spent months talking about how the regular legislative session that ended this month would focus on a tax overhaul to stabilize Louisiana's finances. A year earlier, the majority-Republican Legislature passed more than $1 billion in temporary taxes, giving them June 2018 expiration dates so lawmakers could then tackle long-term tax reform. A legislatively created task force offered a roadmap of ideas.
Edwards did little to build consensus for task force suggestions ahead of the legislative session, and he introduced a new business tax that hadn't been vetted by the study group, that muddied the tax debate and that went nowhere.
House Republicans, meanwhile, blocked most any bill that could be considered a tax hike, including task force recommendations. House GOP leaders pushed a pared-back budget they said could cut the mid-2018 shortfall in half. But moderate Republicans sided with House Democrats, the Senate and the governor to reject that idea, saying it would force harmful cuts.
The "fiscal cliff" remains unaddressed.
Though House Republicans spurned Edwards' proposals this year, Harris said it's incumbent on the governor to offer more suggestions.
"That would be like me coming out with a marketing program in my company to increase sales and it didn't work, and so then I say, 'Well, vendors, it didn't work. It's your turn to come up with a plan and I'm going to sit on the sidelines,'" Harris said.
Edwards said he'll seek to work with House and Senate leaders to build support for a tax plan that could steady Louisiana's finances — and pass the Legislature.
"I'm certainly not giving up. We're going to roll up our sleeves. We're going to try to put together a working group," he said.
Lawmakers can't rewrite tax laws in the 2018 regular legislative session. If they want taxes to offset the budget hole, a special session is required.
Republican House Speaker Taylor Barras has said he expects taxes will have to be passed to at least partially fill the gap, not expecting Louisiana can realistically slash more than $1 billion from its $9.4 billion general fund budget. (Louisiana's $28 billion-plus operating budget has federal funds and other protected financing that are more difficult to cut.)
But Barras has stacked the House Ways and Means Committee, where tax bills must start, with conservative Republicans, some of whom adamantly oppose revenue-raising bills. Barras has been non-committal to calls to rework the committee to give tax ideas more of a chance.
Republican Senate President John Alario said he hopes "reasonable people will sit down and say, 'Listen, we've got a serious problem and we all need to pitch in and solve it.'"
Some lawmakers seem doubtful.
At the last Senate committee hearing on tax bills, Sen. Gerald Boudreaux, a Lafayette Democrat, said: "Maybe we need to crash and burn and start all over."
Melinda Deslatte has covered Louisiana politics for The Associated Press since 2000.