Nearly a year after a task force made several suggestions for stabilizing Louisiana's state budget, Gov. John Bel Edwards is urging the Legislature to return to those recommendations to solve the looming $1 billion "fiscal cliff" the state faces.
"The Legislature has yet to address the long-term structural tax reform that we need to implement," Edwards said Monday during a luncheon in Baton Rouge. "If we don't fix the cliff, no one is going to want to put their name on the cuts that are necessary."
If Edwards calls a special session in February, as he said he currently intends to do, it will be the sixth special session since he took office in January 2016 – each of them to address the state's budget.
State lawmakers in 2016 agreed to temporarily increase the sales tax and roll back some credits and exemptions to plug the budget shortfall – at the time described as a "bridge" to a more comprehensive plan to be approved before the hike expires in July.
Given the opportunity to take up the issue during this year's legislative session, the Legislature, driven mostly by House Republican leadership's push for more spending cuts, didn't adopt any major proposals, prompting the need for a special session before the temporary measures expire in June.
"We have to get it done this time," Edwards, a Democrat, said.
The governor based his proposal off recommendations outlined in the final report from a blue ribbon panel. It doesn't include a business tax that Edwards floated earlier this year aimed at corporate taxpayers.
"We know what the options are. We have to move forward," said Edwards.
His proposals include reducing the sales tax back to its pre-2016 level but expanding sales taxes to more expenditures, including services and some goods currently exempted. Edwards has also called for compressing state income brackets, though its unclear what that compression would be or which levels it would impact. Revenue Secretary Kimberly Robinson said that the administration is awaiting action on tax policy in Congress that could ultimately play a role in finalizing that piece of the plan.
"All the proposals that I'm making come from the legislatively-created task force," Edwards said.
Edwards last week met with House Speaker Taylor Barras and Senate President John Alario to discuss the state budget outlook. "I know there's a willingness to work hard and get this done," he said.
Edwards said he is flexible and willing to work with lawmakers if they have other ideas.
He said he expects to call state lawmakers into a special session in February to take up the proposals, though he cautioned he wouldn't call one unless he felt that the issue would be resolved.
Proposals that Edwards has outlined Monday must start in the House tax committee, which has so far served as a stumbling block in negotiations.
The state Senate, under Alario's direction, has frequently gone along with Edwards' proposals.
The governor gets to set the agenda for special sessions when he calls them. Lawmakers can only debate bills that fall under the umbrella of issues that he includes in his call. Special sessions cost the state about $60,000 a day. Edwards said he won't call one unless he senses movement among lawmakers to adopt a plan.
Rep. Lance Harris, the Alexandria Republican who chairs the House GOP Caucus, said that the delegation, which had a retreat last week that Edwards dropped by unannounced, will have at least two large meetings by February.
"The House Republicans have been working diligently week in and week out," Harris said. "It will bear fruit in the end."
Harris said he still believes that "all options" are on the table and he wouldn't speculate which ideas, if any, from Edwards might muster enough support among his members for passage.
"I think it's too early to say if anything is ironclad," he said.
He said Republicans haven't yet determined how much of the hole should be replaced with revenue and how much should be addressed through budget cuts.
"I think we'll have a better idea of that when we head toward February," he said.
House Speaker Taylor Barras, R-New Iberia, also stressed that House Republican leaders still want more cuts and structural spending changes in the budget.
"This is a discussion about how do we prevent having cliffs in future years," Barras said.
Edwards has often noted that Republicans pushing for cuts haven't submitted detailed plans of how to implement them in past sessions.
Barras said this time the House GOP will detail specific budget reforms that Republicans want. "Those will be a lot more specific," he said.
As for Edwards' recommendations, Barras said he couldn't commit to any specific proposal yet because he wants more specifics, with a deeper look at who will be affected by the various tax recommendations.
"I'm optimistic that we still have a great deal of discussion that will continue," he said.
One thing about having so many sessions and reviews, he noted, is that members are more familiar with the issues than they were a year ago.
"It has formed a better education of how these things work," Barras said.