Political Horizons: Barras tries to cool overheated temperature in state House _lowres

Advocate staff photo by PATRICK DENNIS -- House Speaker Taylor Barras, R-New Iberia, speaks with legislators on the floor of the Louisiana House of Representatives.

To hear Gov. John Bel Edwards and House Speaker Taylor Barras, R-New Iberia, tell it, negotiations over the looming loss of more than $1 billion in expiring taxes are going to be different from the dysfunction that has marked previous attempts to right the state budget.

Because lawmakers can't raise revenue during next year's regular legislative session, the Democratic governor will need to call a special session to replace the income that will disappear once a temporary sales tax increase adopted in 2016 expires July 1. But he says he won't do that unless the shape of a deal with the Republicans who dominate the House is in place. (The Senate is also majority Republican but has been much friendlier to the governor).

And in an interview with The Associated Press, Barras suggested an agreement is in the works on his end. While he didn't get into specifics, he said his side hopes to reach a consensus by January. Based on his conversations, Barras explained, members seem to be taking the budget challenges more seriously than in the past.

"I think people are a little more willing to generally understand because the deadline's a little closer. They're a little bit more engaged, and I'm encouraged by that," he said.

That all sounds great, but there are reasons for skepticism.

One is that, until now, the Republicans who dominate the House delegation have been much more focused on forcing Edwards to make deep cuts in government programs than on finding money to avert them.

A second is some hard and fast evidence that, Barras' conciliatory tone notwithstanding, certain major players are still spoiling for a fight.

That evidence came via a blistering new online video by state Rep. Cameron Henry, R-Metairie, that paints the governor as a scaremongering tax-and-spender and throws cold water on the thought of tough tax votes.

"The governor has now started fear season," Henry argues in the three-minute video. "He's going to start out sending a little bit of information of things that are going to be cut if he doesn't get all the money he wants."

Henry goes on to claim that the governor is threatening to cut vital programs while not looking at big contracts such as a deal for Bayou Health, which actually pays for health care for poor people under a privatization arrangement launched by Republican Bobby Jindal.

He bashes the idea of extending the sales tax increase, even though that approach is likely to be less onerous than some alternatives to Republicans. In fact, while he makes it clear that he thinks the governor wants to raise too much money, he leaves unclear whether he's willing to support any tax measures at all.

He even gratuitously quips that the governor dislikes TOPS, the popular college tuition scholarships. Edwards actually professes to be a big fan of the program but has been willing to short it in order to avoid drastic cuts elsewhere.

Henry's not just any House member, of course. He's a leader of the chamber's more ideologically hard-line Republicans, and he chairs the Appropriations Committee, which has blocked idea after idea by Edwards to raise revenue. His powerful post was something of a consolation prize after he couldn't amass enough votes to be elected speaker himself. Barras was the compromise choice who was more acceptable to moderate Republicans, so Henry wound up backing him instead, but he retains plenty of political stroke.

In fact, throughout the nearly two years since that speaker vote, there's been considerable discussion over whether Barras is fully in charge, or whether Henry and his more conservative colleagues are really pulling the GOP's strings.

Some Republicans I speak to hate it when the press raises that question and insist that Barras is as strong a speaker as any of his predecessors.

If they want people to believe they're on the same page, though, at some point they're going to need to do a better job of acting like it.

Correction: Tuesday's column misstated the Louisiana congressional delegation's votes on Harvey aid. U.S. Rep. Clay Higgins missed the initial vote but supported the bill's final passage. U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond voted "yes" in the first round but missed the second vote.

Follow Stephanie Grace on Twitter, @stephgracela.