House on 052517

Louisiana House Speaker Taylor Barras, R-New Iberia, as House begins business Thursday, May 25, 2017, with a Memorial Day ceremony.

Advocate Photo by Travis Spradling

Now it can be said: There never was a plan.

House Speaker Taylor Barras, conceded as much Wednesday, when he told reporters that a special session to address the looming fiscal cliff is in the cards. This after acknowledging the obvious, that the GOP-dominated House has not passed any measures to replace the temporary revenue stream lawmakers adopted last year as a supposed stopgap, to give themselves time to address systemic fiscal challenges and put the government on more predictable path.

“It sounds like that’s where we’re heading,” the New Iberia Republican told The Advocate’s Tyler Bridges.

Raise your hand if you’re surprised.

Special legislative sessions, in theory, are for emergencies, or at least unanticipated developments. When the Legislature adopted $1.3 billion in temporary taxes set to expire on July, 2018, everyone knew that the time to enact longer-term tax policy would be now, during the last regularly scheduled fiscal session before that date.

Members had a year to study the problem and consider ideas to solve it. Instead, they’re poised to blow right by their self-imposed deadline, and instead hope either that conditions will improve on their own — that oil prices will finally head up, for example — or that it will somehow be easier to act later rather than sooner.

It’s also clear at this point that extending at least part of the temporary sales tax increase adopted last year could well be part of the ultimate solution, even though pretty much everyone involved said at the time that this wasn’t meant to be a permanent fix.

Barras conceded that too, noting that any effort to address the cliff would likely include a full or partial renewal of the penny increase instituted in 2017. This, it seems, is simply the path of least resistance, given that lawmakers have already voted for it once and taxpayers are now paying it.

That doesn’t make it anything like good policy, though. Sales taxes hit lower-income residents particularly hard, and having the highest combined state and local sales tax in the country sends a terrible message to the world. Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards, who has been pushing for more comprehensive tax reform, has said so repeatedly, and he’s right.

Barras is right about something too, and it’s that there’s no public appetite for higher taxes.

“Outside this building, no one wants a tax passed,” he said, noting that many local tax initiatives have failed at the ballot box recently and that organized resistance is in full bloom. And it’s true that outside interest groups are making a full-court press. The state GOP is even scolding some of its own, more responsibly-minded members for leading the charge for a separate gas tax to address universally acknowledged infrastructure needs.

Again, raise your hand if you’re surprised.

Despite their reluctance, the Republicans who control the House, particularly the ideological conservatives to whom Barras gave great influence over budgetary matters through his committee assignments, acknowledge that the state will need to replace about half the $1.3 billion. So while conservative leaders are pushing for a standstill budget for the coming year, not even they say new revenue isn’t needed eventually.

Edwards has grappled with anti-tax sentiment as well. He came up with an ill-fated plan that featured a new commercial activities tax, which died early in the session, because he concluded his preferred ideas wouldn’t pass in this atmosphere. And even then, he sold the overall proposal as a tax cut for most residents.

Still, he’s been the more responsible player, and the fact that he had a 54 percent approval rating in the latest Southern Media and Opinion Research poll, after having already signed big tax increases and cut services, suggests that at least some voters aren’t out to punish any politician who dares support new revenue measures.

Barras and his members, of course, are playing to their base, which includes big business, committed budget-cutters and Edwards adversaries who don’t want to give him legislative wins. Like the governor, the speaker’s a nice guy in a tough situation.

He’s right that nobody wants to pay more taxes. But he’s wrong that the anti-tax atmosphere justifies inaction, or further delay.