Louisiana lawmakers will be back at the State Capitol on June 18 for the third special session of the year and a last-ditch attempt at addressing the fiscal cliff the state faces in its budget that begins July 1.
Gov. John Bel Edwards issued the call Friday for the latest 10-day special session, which must end by 6 p.m. June 27. It will be the seventh budget-focused special session since Edwards took office in January 2016.
“A clear majority in the Legislature wants to put our state’s budget challenges behind us, but were blocked in the last special session,” Edwards said in a statement Friday. “We have one more opportunity to get this right for the people of Louisiana."
Two special sessions have earlier this year ended without major movement toward bridging the $650 million budget gap the state faces when more than $1 billion in temporary tax measures expire June 30.
Both ended in impasse in the state House, which has been split over whether the state should extend part of an expiring sales tax hike and by how much.
House Republican leaders in the most recent special session backed extending one-third of the expiring 1 percent sales tax and temporarily suspending some sales tax breaks. Under their proposal, the state sales tax rate would go from 5 percent to 4.33 percent on July 1.
The Senate, with support from Edwards, advanced a proposal to keep one-half of the expiring tax hike, setting the new state sales tax rate at 4.5 percent to generate more than $500 million.
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Both proposals ultimately were rejected in the House in the final moments of the special session. In the days since, Edwards has repeatedly noted that a bipartisan majority in the House voted 63-41 in favor of the one-half proposal, but it did not get the 70-vote two-thirds majority that tax legislation must get to pass.
For taxpayers, the difference between the two competing proposals would be 17 cents on a $100 purchase.
"We know the path we need to take, and now it’s time to come together as Louisianans to solve this problem," Edwards said. "Based on the input from many members of the Legislature, I am optimistic that we can get it done.”
He also encouraged lawmakers to end the session early, if they can. Special sessions cost taxpayers about $60,000 a day.
Without any major revenue-raising measures, a budget that the Legislature approved in the final 30 minutes of the most recent special session would require deep cuts to higher education, public safety and other state services. Edwards also announced Friday that he signed that budget, after vetoing an earlier version from the regular session.
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“While this budget is not perfect by any means, it clearly lays out the choice the legislature has leading up to the special session,” Edwards said.
Health care, which has been among Edwards' priorities, would be protected from cuts in the current budget.
But the popular Taylor Opportunity Program for Students scholarships would be slashed by 30 percent and college and university campuses would be cut by nearly 25 percent.
Funding for the state's inmate housing program, human services, district attorneys and victims rights coordinators, and more also would face deep cuts, and the food stamps program could face elimination.
Edwards vetoed a similar budget that was passed during the regular session, calling it "catastrophic" to state services.
The latest HB1 requires that additional revenue be distributed on a "pro rata" basis, meaning that legislators may not be able to plug in funding only for pet priorities, like TOPS, without addressing other cuts.
“This budget funds our health care priorities and lays out a plan to fully fund TOPS, higher education, sheriffs, children and family services, our district attorneys and other critical priorities," Edwards said. "Doing so requires the Legislature to adopt the bipartisan, compromise plan that received support from an overwhelming majority of legislators. According to the bill, anything short of that would result in each of these areas being cut.”
Edwards, who sets the special session agenda through his proclamation announcing one, did not include items that the House Republican Delegation Chair Lance Harris, R-Alexandria, had requested in a letter Thursday.
In a reply to Harris, who asked the governor to allow lawmakers to consider a proposal to change how the state spending cap is calculated and an effort to give the state auditor access to Medicaid recipients tax records, Edwards said that they either had already been addressed or would be a distraction from the cliff.
"The call I have executed is focused only on (the fiscal cliff), and I hope I can count on your cooperation to work with me to get this done," Edwards said in his letter to Harris.