'Last chance': Louisiana Senate plans one more push to help fill budget gap _lowres

House Speaker Taylor Barras, R-New Iberia and Sen. Jim Fannin, R-Jonesboro, meet on the Senate floor during during the second special legislative session in June 2016.

Advocate staff photo by Patrick Dennis

Gov. John Bel Edwards put down his coffee cup to better poke his finger in punctuation of his contention that a sizable number of Republican representatives lacked courage.

He named no names in the recent interview, but Edwards clearly referred to the Louisiana House’s “Gang of No” — 21 tea party and Christian right Republicans whose refusal to raise taxes or cut spending gave legislators only 97 seconds at the end of last March’s special session to approve what was necessary to keep the lights on in state government.

“It’s the least serious, least responsible, least courageous thing I can imagine,” Edwards said.

It’s also like a cold sore that Edwards can’t stop touching with his tongue: Recalcitrant Republicans who go back to their districts and brag about keeping a hospital open or acquiring money for a road improvement. “Yet, those individuals are sitting there hoping and praying that there are enough (other) members of the Legislature who will vote for the revenue (tax increases) that they know is needed so they can go home and say ‘I didn’t vote for that revenue’,” the governor said, adding that House Republicans didn’t come up with a single spending cut he hadn’t already proposed.

That was last year, House Speaker Taylor Barras said Thursday, when serious deliberation was punted by the fire-drill nature of filling a deficit that amounted to about two-thirds of the budget money over which lawmakers actually have say so.

This year, House Republicans are going to forward their own plans, he said. To that end, GOP legislators have broken up into subcommittees to reflect on various ideas that would change a system of sweeping tax breaks and legally required spending that has resulted in a decade of shortfalls and last-minute juggling.

These proposals are aimed more for the regular session that begins April 10, rather than a possible special session to answer the latest budget crisis that the Edwards has said he may call in mid-February, Barras said.

One GOP House panel is looking at spending, another at taxes.

Panel members are still mulling the ideas and haven’t alighted on which ones will become bills. But some of their thinking is leaking out.

For instance, expanding sales taxes to include services and goods that currently are exempt is getting a close look, said Oil City Rep. Jim Morris, who chairs the seven-member panel that has been meeting weekly since November.

Turning “broadening the base” of who pays sales taxes into law will only work if the tax itself is lowered a penny or two from the five cents the state charges now, Barras and Morris said.

Whether Republicans pursue “broadening the base” also depends largely on how that idea fits in with eliminating other taxes and rolling back tax breaks for businesses, he said.

Gov. Bobby Jindal floated a similar proposition a few years ago.

Jindal had sought to eliminate income taxes and replace the lost revenues, largely, by expanding who would have to pay sales taxes. 

Up until his dramatic announcement “to park our tax plan” at the opening of the 2013 legislative session, there was no reason to believe that the master of Louisiana wouldn’t get his way. The GOP majority in the Louisiana House pretty much followed what Jindal said.

But Jindal discovered that as powerful as he was, taxing accountants, lawyers and other businesses for the first time didn’t resonate as well with the special interests as it did on the campaign trail.

Even an irony-impaired Edwards, who at the time headed the loyal opposition in the Louisiana House, railed against the idea. “We would have the highest sales tax in the nation with the most regressive tax structure in the nation,” then-Rep. Edwards said three years ago. 

Now the atmosphere has changed considerably, Barras said.

A larger and more entrenched deficit has softened once-hardened positions on raising revenue. “The question is how is it implemented?” Barras said.

Added into the Republican calculus, Barras said, is that Louisiana unemployment outpaces the national rates. So, lawmakers may need to tread lightly on rolling back tax breaks for businesses that promise to create jobs.

Whether more people in Louisiana pay lower sales taxes later this year is plausible but still up in the air. The take-away, Barras said, is that House Republicans are engaging on both revenue-raising and spending-cut strategies before the hurly-burly of a legislative session begins.

“That’s a good thing,” Barras said.

Follow Mark Ballard on Twitter, @MarkBallardCnb.