laxgr1115.060917 bf

As Administration Commissioner Jay Dardenne, right, watches, Gov. John Bel Edwards talks about the just finished legislative session and the special session after the last day of the regular legislative session Thursday June 8, 2017, in Baton Rouge, La..

ADVOCATE STAFF PHOTO BY BILL FEIG

Gov. John Bel Edwards drew a Jan. 19 line in the sand for Louisiana House Republicans to put up or shut up.

That’s the day the governor plans to unveil his somewhat bleak budget proposal, and that’s when he wants to hear the GOP’s alternative for keeping the state from going off what insiders call a fiscal cliff.

Legally, his spending plan must match expected revenues, which will be coming in about $1 billion short because a penny of the 5-cent state sales tax — added a couple of years ago to address a previous deficit — expires June 30. His budget proposal probably will be full of deep cuts in the appropriations to colleges and universities, health care for the poor, state parks and other services.

“But he does not support the cuts that would be imposed should the Legislature fail to address the fiscal cliff,” according to the governor’s “plan of action” being circulated among legislators. He needs a special session to deal with the problem, but says he won’t call one unless some compromise is reached.

Edwards’ ideas, according to his “plan of action,” include making permanent temporary tax break reductions passed in 2015, reducing the amount taxpayers can claim in federal tax deductions on state income tax returns, compressing individual income tax brackets, adding various services to items subject to sales taxes, plus charging business and industry taxes on the utilities they buy.

His gambit appears to be that with the economy rebounding, unemployment on the decline, and elections less than two years away, the looming “fiscal cliff” will motivate the Legislature to finally lean into the tough task of fixing the way Louisiana collects and spends taxes.

But the "can’t hold on much longer" fiscal cliff card has been played nearly every year for the past decade.

With apologies to public television’s literacy education program “Between the Lions,” Louisiana, like the square-jawed Cliff Hanger, begins and ends every episode hanging from a cliff — “that’s why we call him Cliff Hanger.” Nothing appears on the horizon to change that story line.

After months of meetings, House Republicans can’t agree on a counter proposal.

“January 19th, that’s his deadline,” said House Majority Leader Lance Harris, R-Alexandria. “We’re continuing to meet in groups to discuss and strategize to the options.”

And while no preferences have percolated up, yet, Harris is sure they will.

Republican state Rep. Tony Bacala, of Gonzales, thinks it may be a little early to assume the hole will be $1 billion or more. The Revenue Estimating Conference meets at the end of the month and could recognize more money. Retail sales have been up, meaning more sales tax dollars are being collected.

He’s looking at changes to the Medicaid processes, such as enacting co-pay that could generate millions. And the recently signed federal tax revamp likely will help the state fisc, Bacala said.

A lower number increases options, Bacala said. “It moves the needle and informs the Legislature on what to do.”

State Rep. Kenny Havard, R-St. Francisville, is less optimistic.

“I don’t think the body has the stomach to make the hard decisions,” Havard said. He prefers rolling back tax breaks that leave corporations paying $330 million in taxes while small businesses and individuals contribute about $3.5 billion.

"We could absolutely sit there and say no, no, no. And just let him (Edwards) cut, but that would be irresponsible,” Republican state Rep. Kevin Pearson says. 

On the other hand, the Democratic governor shows little inclination to negotiate with the conservative House majority, the lawmaker added.

“If the governor moved towards the middle, I think there will be a consensus, but I don’t believe he will,” Pearson said last week.

Republican state Rep. Barry Ivey, of Central is eager to resolve the financial structural problems and ran with several options during the last session. Ultimately his bill died on the House floor, but the lesson he learned was that few have an appetite to fix the status quo.

“There are not too many people with their hands on the wheel,” Ivey said. “It causes me to question the direction, the leadership, the administration, how they intend to solve the problem.”

State Sen. Conrad Appel, R-Metairie, says Edwards’ focus on paying for existing services trumps any long-term strategy.

“What is the end game? Where do we want to go as a state? How can we get there? I call it vision,” Appel said. “Do we have an education governor? No. An economic development governor? No. If you like it the way it is, then keep with the Edwards’ plan.”

Follow Mark Ballard on Twitter, @MarkBallardCnb.