Republican state Rep. Stephen Dwight stormed out of the Louisiana House Ways & Means Committee Tuesday, just moments after his bill was set aside because a Democrat’s maneuver would have required GOP members to vote on camera for his modest tax-raising measure.
His angry pronouncement that “without this bill, this session is over,” launched a thousand tweets. And as good as the “failed special session” narrative is for clicks, likes and whatever other gauge used to measure quality journalism these days, it’s not truly accurate.
Far from being over, House work on Sunday could show the tentative beginnings of a deal.
The temporary fifth cent in state sales taxes, passed in 2016, was supposed to buy time to work out structural changes to the state’s fiscal policy. But lawmakers couldn’t agree on what to do, and now that additional penny is set to expire on June 30, creating a nearly $1 billion hole in revenues.
Making up the difference means cutting services, which nobody really wants, coming up with more revenues to the pay bills, which again nobody wants, or a little of both.
To take another stab, the Legislature convened in a special session that began Monday and runs through March 7.
No significant tax bills were passed out of committee last week, and only a couple of the fiscal “reforms” Republicans want linked to those revenue-raising measures have made it to the House floor.
GOP House Majority Leader Lance Harris of Alexandria cautioned patience to the doomsayers in the press and the Legislature, repeating, like a mantra, “its part of the process.”
House Speaker Taylor Barras, R-New Iberia, spent much of Thursday afternoon meeting with Republicans and some Democrats. Gov. John Bel Edwards urged compromise to some members of the House Democratic caucus and members of Ways & Means.
Come Sunday afternoon, Ways & Means, which has balked before, is expected to forward some tax measures to the full House, and the Health & Welfare Committee will vote on changes to Medicaid that House Republicans want.
The full House will convene at 6 p.m. to consider which of the few pieces of legislation that have made it that far in the process to send to the Senate.
Pieces of legislation are likely to change, and further hurdles will need to be cleared, but as he left the House floor Thursday night, Barras expressed optimism that progress is being made.
Dwight, R-Lake Charles, said of his sales tax bill: "It got off life support and has legs.”
Dwight's plan would make permanent one-fourth of a temporary one-penny sales tax hike. It would also allow the state to charge sales tax on items that were previously exempt before their carve-outs were temporarily rolled back in 2016. Dwight's bill would bring in about $300 million annually, according to legislative estimates.
Meanwhile, staff and legislators were looking over the wording of legislation that would allow Louisiana to increase income tax collections by limiting state credits for taxpayers who itemize deductions on their federal income taxes in excess of the standard deduction.
State Rep. Ted James, the Baton Rouge Democrat whose opposition to Dwight’s bill in Ways & Means would have forced a roll-call vote putting Republican members visibly on record as supporting a tax, said he was concerned that all the GOP initiatives have relied on sales taxes and none on income taxes. While everybody buys things, using a sales tax puts more of a burden for funding government services on the take-home pay of lower-income people, who make up more than half the state’s residents.
“Compromise means both sides have to give a little,” James said during a lull in the House Chamber Thursday night. “That means we have to compromise too.”
A wrinkle is that Republicans have insisted that any tax bills that come out of their chamber include a rider that says the tax increase won’t go into effect unless one of their fiscal reform measures also passes.
These revamps — the so-called Ohio checkbook, a hard spending cap, and changes to Medicaid — provide political cover for those who were elected chanting “the state has spending problem, not a revenue problem.”
But the riders are kind of insulting to the age-old legislative process of people giving their word and keeping it, state Rep. Major Thibaut, D-New Roads, said when the first one was amended onto Dwight’s bill.
If the riders make it easier for House Republicans to vote for sales and income taxes, though, then James said he’s OK with them. “They’ll be stripped off when the adults get these bills in the Senate,” he added.
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