Louisiana lawmakers are heading into a special session to try to fix the budget on Tuesday.
Heard this one before? This time, they say it's for real.
After years of plugging budgets, threatened cuts, doomsday scenarios and worse, the Legislature has another shot at attempting to fix structural issues within the state budget's framework that have led to repeated shortfalls in recent years and another on the horizon.
With a nearly $650 million fiscal cliff looming just over a month away that threatens deep cuts to state services, state officials say now is when things get real.
Starting Tuesday, they have two weeks to hash out two years of disagreements and stalemates over the state's fiscal priorities. (Or there will inevitably be another special session — but lawmakers generally aren't speaking of that just yet. The real deadline is June 30.)
"We're in a place now where I believe that we have a larger number of representatives and senators who acknowledge we've got to fix the budget — what fix means is probably different to each of them if you ask," Gov. John Bel Edwards said in a recent meeting with The Advocate editorial board.
This will be the sixth special session since Edwards took office in January 2016 — all addressing budget concerns.
"This is a challenge, but I really see it as an opportunity to fix things in Louisiana. I really believe that people are focused now. They see how ugly in action is," Edwards said after lawmakers wrapped up their 2018 regular session Friday, more than two weeks ahead of schedule to make way for the special session.
A yearlong task force and multiple sessions since have resulted in no permanent solution to the state's off-kilter finances.
In 2016, legislators agreed to the temporary fixes as a "bridge" to a broader structural overhaul from cuts and smarter tax policies, but nothing has been implemented two years and many sessions later.
The most recent special session, held earlier this year before the regular session began, collapsed after two weeks when the House couldn't agree to any revenue-raising measures.
Gov. John Bel Edwards has vetoed the Legislature's spending plan for the coming year, calling the version of House Bill 1 that passed both the…
Edwards announced late Friday evening that he was vetoing House Bill 1, the measure that carries the state's annual budget, because it included deep cuts to state services.
State legislators had said they passed the budget proposal to demonstrate just how drastic the situation will be when more than $1 billion in taxes expire before the next budget year.
But Edwards lambasted it as "catastrophic" as it fully funded health care priorities but would have cut most other state agencies by nearly 25 percent. The popular Taylor Opportunity Program for Students would have been cut by 30 percent, and colleges and universities would have had a more than 10 percent cut.
"We're not going to pretend that what they did was adequate. It was catastrophic," Edwards said. "I think it's much better to go back to the real world as soon as possible."
The House Republican Delegation, which has positioned itself as the key adversary to the Democratic Edwards in the tax debate, released a video the day after Edwards announced his veto, with the caucus declaring: "This will not change our priorities."
The video also mocked a 2016 televised address from Edwards that said LSU football could be at risk if colleges were not adequately funded.
"Throughout this entire process going back to last session, House Republicans have done our job," said House GOP Caucus Chair Lance Harris, of Alexandria, said during a recent news conference. "We've held the line and saved the people of our state over $500 million in unnecessary taxes."
Unlike sessions in the past, Edwards is not scheduled to address a joint meeting of the House and Senate to start the session.
Instead, Edwards has planned an address, dubbed "Our Louisiana," that he will deliver at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, alongside Republican Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser and a bipartisan slate of lawmakers and other stakeholders about three hours before the special session kicks off.
There's no guarantee that the sixth will be the final special session. The state must have a budget in place by the July 1 start of the fiscal year, so if one isn't in place when the special session ends June 4, it's possible another could be called.
Special sessions cost about $60,000 per extra day in Baton Rouge, according to legislative estimates. The most recent special session, which collapsed in March without action toward closing the budget gap, cost about $643,000.
But Edwards said he is confident that lawmakers can complete everything in the two weeks that he has called them back.
He issued a broad call for the special session to give lawmakers as many options as possible.
Louisiana legislators ended the 2018 regular session on Friday — more than two weeks ahead of schedule, giving lawmakers about a three-day bre…
During a late-night news conference after the regular session ended and in a separate meeting with The Advocate editorial board last week, Edwards detailed what he believes is the most likely path forward to a permanent budget fix, which he said will most-likely include a heavy reliance on sales taxes as the Legislature has rejected broader tax overhauls recommended by the 2016 task force.
"This was the one thing the task force did not recommend, but in the spirit of compromise I believe it will be far preferable to accept a portion of the fifth penny than to fail to fix the problem," he said.
Louisiana's current state sales tax rate is 5 percent, and the state ranks among the highest for combined state and average local sales tax rates in the country.
Edwards said he understands concerns about relying on a sales tax-centric budget fix. But sales tax has proved to be a big revenue-generator that can be recognized immediately.
"It seems to me that a portion of the fifth penny is going to be required," Edwards said.
Democrats have generally been critics of sales tax, as it is seen as a more regressive tax that disproportionately affects poor people.
Louisiana exempts groceries, prescription drugs and utilities from sales tax, among other purchases. Edwards said that makes him more comfortable with the tax, though it's unclear at what point he can get other Democrats to agree with him on accepting that as a solution.
"I know our sales tax is less regressive than other states," he said.
Edwards said categorically he doesn't want another temporary tax proposal with an automatic expiration.
"I don't want to create another cliff," he said.
Republicans maintain that because the governor had initially pushed for $994 million — the size of the gap before the boost from the recent federal tax rewrite — lawmakers would have raised taxes too much to cover the gap if they had acted during the earlier special session.
"We're entering into the special session knowing exactly where the funding gaps are and reducing the tax burden to the people of our state," Harris said.
Edwards, meanwhile, is characterizing the $648 million gap as an opportunity for a net tax reduction, as more than $1.4 billion in taxes are set to expire and his administration is advocating cutting an additional $120 million from spending.