Louisiana House Chamber before special session begins

Paperwork has been distributed and extra chairs have been set up in the Louisiana House chamber ready for Gov. John Bel Edwards' address to legislators at 5 p.m. Monday, Feb. 17, 2018. The 17-day special session aims to address a $1 billion deficit in the state budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

The 144 members of Louisiana’s Legislature will convene Monday in a special session that will mark their fifth attempt in two years to solve the state’s recurring budget problems.

The 17-day session will have a number of storylines, but one will predominate: Can House Speaker Taylor Barras persuade enough Republicans to approve tax measures that would be part of a budget deal he makes with Gov. John Bel Edwards?

Barras, a Republican from New Iberia who was a compromise pick to be speaker in January 2016, has been unable to forge a clear consensus within his caucus to find a budget solution.

In the upper chamber, Senate President John Alario, R-Westwego, the state’s longest-serving legislator, has had little trouble guiding the Senate to work in tandem with the governor.

Edwards has called the special session because about $1 billion in temporary taxes are expiring on July 1, when the new fiscal year begins. State Capitol insiders call it the "fiscal cliff."

An 1-cent increase in the state sales tax — which has given Louisiana the highest sales tax rate in the country — accounts for most of the $1 billion. Only the most vociferously anti-tax Republicans believe that lawmakers can make up that revenue through budget cuts alone, and even they haven’t explained how they would do it.

Edwards has reluctantly offered a budget without the $1 billion that would make deep cuts to schools, universities — including the popular Taylor Opportunity Program for Students scholarships — prisons and health care for the poor.

Since the Legislature last adjourned in June, Barras has said legislators will need to come up with the $1 billion through a combination of spending cuts and tax measures, and he reiterated that point in an interview Friday.

But Barras has been either unwilling or unable since then to identify a specific plan publicly that would provide the necessary revenue increases. The governor and his senior aides have repeatedly expressed frustration with Barras, both publicly and privately, over the lack of specifics. Some Republicans have said some of their leaders don’t want to compromise to make Edwards appear ineffective and weaken his chances of winning re-election next year.

Barras has pushed a number of anti-spending measures popular with conservatives, but they would only partially fill the budget gap. Edwards has included these ideas — which include a cap on state spending, greater transparency in government spending modeled after a website in Ohio and measures to make some non-elderly adult Medicaid recipients work and to make payments when they see a doctor — among the items the Legislature can consider in the special session, which by law has a limited scope.

“We will ask that the spending reforms make it through for the revenue measures to pass,” Barras said, adding that he plans to tie passage of any tax measures to the anti-spending measures.

The key issue during the special session is that renewing at least a portion of the 1-cent sales tax and other taxes will require at least 70 votes in the 105-member House.

“Seventy is the magic number in all of this,” said state Rep. Thomas Carmody, R-Shreveport, adding, “The (Republican) delegation has not sat down and decided where it is.”

Barras has been privately polling the 61-member House GOP delegation and has held repeated meetings with Edwards and Alario to try to find common ground. He and his caucus have staked out a clear position on the spending side.

“Anything that’s considered in revenue, to get to that 70, we’re going to have to have the spending reforms,” said state Rep. Lance Harris, R-Alexandria, who as the chairman of the Republican legislative caucus will have to corral reluctant lawmakers to support any agreement.

It’s unclear at this point how much money the proposed spending changes might save.

One tactic Barras and Harris may well deploy: Delaying consideration of tax measures until the House — and perhaps even the Senate — has passed the anti-spending measures. If they pursue that plan, the initial days of the special session will include a lot of down time.

The broad outlines of a deal on the revenue side are clear, according to sources familiar with the discussions: renewing half of the 1-cent sales tax increase, making permanent the closure of a number of business tax breaks, using money from a settlement with BP and using the increased state income tax revenue that the tax bill approved by President Donald Trump and Congress will generate (some $226 million).

Edwards is expecting Barras and his allies to give on tax measures while Barras and his side expect the governor to yield on the anti-spending measures.

“Can both sides compromise and work together? That’s a big test this time around,” said Robert Travis Scott, who heads the Public Affairs Research Council, a Baton Rouge-based good government group. “If you look at the call (for the session), they appear to have some agreements in principle. Once we get into the session, it’s the details that might prove frustrating.”

The half-cent renewal of the sales tax is key because it would raise nearly half of the money needed to plug the $1 billion hole. The amount of expiring taxes tops $1.3 billion, but rising revenue from other taxes has reduced the budget shortfall's size.

“I’m not sure what kind of support Taylor has lined up for each of those proposals,” said state Rep. Franklin Foil, R-Baton Rouge. “Some people are not going to want to do anything on the revenue side.”

Barras will hold three separate 45-minute briefings of 20 members apiece Monday afternoon in the State Capitol basement before the Legislature formally convenes at 4 p.m. Edwards will then pitch his ideas to the 144 House and Senate members sitting together in the House chamber.

To be sure, Edwards is facing his own set of questions.

His primary tax plan last year — a new tax on businesses — won little favor from Democrats and Republicans alike and died before the House Ways and Means Committee. Since then, his budget plan has centered on his embrace of the recommendations of a blue ribbon panel that in January 2017 recommended closing a series of tax loopholes that primarily benefit businesses and wealthier taxpayers while lowering tax rates. The Ways and Means Committee, stacked by Barras with anti-tax conservatives, killed virtually all of those proposals last year.

Commentators have pointed out that the most recent plan offered by Edwards wouldn’t fully raise the needed $1 billion.

The Governor's Office did not respond to a request for an interview.

Edwards is also facing blowback from Republicans over a list of budget cuts he claimed but had to revise after state Sen. Sharon Hewitt, R-Slidell, challenged his numbers.

“Those budget claims definitely hurt,” Scott said. “It wasn’t a fatal blow. Up until that point, we’ve seen a fairly transparent process (from the governor).”

Edwards will have to bring aboard Democrats to any deal he reaches with Barras, especially members of the Legislative Black Caucus, who have voiced skepticism about renewing the sales tax increase because it takes the biggest bite out of the poor.

“Those taxes affect our people more than those from any other group,” said state Rep. Terry Landry, D-New Iberia. “I’m willing to vote for a portion of the sales tax only if there is a rollback of tax exemptions.”

One former legislator noted that reaching the two-thirds majority in the House — 70 votes — is so difficult on any tax measure that it will inevitably require the governor to dole out pork-barrel roadwork projects in the districts of certain legislators to win their votes.

“Some can be satisfied with a $25,000 generator for their district or a $100,000 overlay for their highway,” said the former legislator, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “If the governor is interested in getting his two-thirds, he needs to bring his bag of tricks. It’s Taylor’s deal, but the governor has a big role to play in this.”

Barras, 61, managed IberiaBank’s operations in Iberia Parish when House Republicans broke with precedent and installed him — in a surprise move — as speaker rather than the governor’s choice, when Edwards and the new Legislature took office in January 2016. Until then, Barras, who served one term in the House as a Democrat before switching parties, was a little-known back-bencher. He got the nod as speaker, in the face of a deadlock, in part because everyone likes his genial manner.

As speaker, Barras wields the gavel in the House each day and decides who chairs each committee, who sits on each committee and which bills the House will hear. He must negotiate on an ongoing basis to pass controversial legislation. Members can defy him and go their own way. Past speakers have enforced discipline by bouncing renegade members from choice committee assignments. Barras has yet to do that. He governs with a light touch.

One legislator said Barras only polls his views on key issues without demanding his support on big votes, as more heavy-handed past speakers typically have done.

Barras has operated at a disadvantage compared with Edwards and Alario.

The governor has a much bigger bully pulpit, has extra political muscle that comes with a 60 percent approval rating, and can reward friendly legislators with capital projects and appointments of friends to boards and commissions. The governor is also benefiting from a state economy that has emerged from a recession but is growing only half a percent per year, said economist Loren Scott.

Alario is probably the most effective and knowledgeable legislator in modern memory, having served as speaker of the House and president of the Senate, both as a Democrat and a Republican, over his 46 years in the Legislature.

Barras oversees a fractious Republican majority in the House that was large enough last year to block renewing or approving new tax measures sought by Edwards as part of a permanent budget solution but that also was leery of balancing the budget through deep budget cuts. That dynamic played a key role in preventing the Legislature from solving the problem last year, as planned.

The Daily Advertiser, the Lafayette newspaper whose coverage area includes Barras’ district, took the extraordinary step of editorializing he ought to resign because he had governed so ineffectively.

And that was before moderate Republicans in the House — frustrated at the inaction — took the extraordinary step of joining with Democrats, during the fourth special session in June, to approve the annual state budget currently in effect, over Barras’ objections.

The special session has to end by March 7. If lawmakers can’t solve the $1 billion hole, they would have to return for a sixth special session in June. Then, they would be flirting with the record books. The last governor to hold more than five special sessions in a single term was Buddy Roemer during the late 1980s.

No matter what happens over the next 17 days, lawmakers will reconvene on March 12 for the start of the 80-day regular session.

Follow Tyler Bridges on Twitter, @tegbridges.