Gov. John Bel Edwards generated a headline Monday when he promised he would be flexible about his Jan. 19 deadline, the date he would present a draft budget to the Legislature — where talks about tax reform have been stalled by the GOP-led House for two years.
While it did not get as much attention, the governor added that the legislators ought to pay attention to how tight the calendar is. Not only passage of a budget, which is a process started when the governor submits his proposal, but raising sufficient money to pay for the budget is also at issue this year. The state's financial year starts July 1.
In December, the Democratic governor said he needed an "agreement on principle" with House Republican leaders on a tax package by Jan. 19, or he wouldn't call a February special legislative session to boost tax collections. And although the governor said he would be as flexible as he can be, the reality is that the budget process doesn't allow much latitude, especially with a looming gap of better than $1 billion.
The budget hole derives from the expiration of "temporary" taxes enacted in 2016, including a one-cent sales tax that makes Louisiana the highest in the nation for that particular source of revenue. Not a good list to be at the top of.
As the governor noted in his talk, a special session is required to raise "new" revenue to replace the "temporary" sales tax and other expiring laws. That requirement of the Louisiana Constitution — the legislative session this year cannot take up taxes — means that the dodging and weaving by state House leadership cannot go on forever.
They call the expiring taxes the "fiscal cliff" at the State Capitol. Legislators seem unwilling to act until there is no ground under their toes, and Edwards — as well as college presidents and agency heads who have to develop their own budget plans — has a right to be frustrated by the intransigence of the House.
As the governor suggested, stability in revenues is the only responsible way to run government. We've seen this before, with "temporary taxes" in the 1990s that expired every two years, forcing painful decisions, political and managerial. We don't want to go back there.
So we urge legislators to play no games. Sooner rather than later, the governor must present a budget proposal based on the revenues in current law, not based on the pious hope that lawmakers in the House will act.