The Louisiana House worked into the evening Friday, trying to reach a compromise on the best way to shore up the state's finances and prevent deep cuts to higher education and health care in the coming year.
Over the course of an often testy week, the House rejected two tax measures seen as crucial to filling the budget gap the state faces when temporary tax measures adopted in 2016 expire June 30.
But Republican and Democratic leaders stayed locked in behind-the-scenes negotiations meant to reach some larger deal that could prevent the 17-day special session from being a failure.
"We are trying to make some additional progress," House Speaker Taylor Barras, R-New Iberia, said shortly before the chamber took another break to gauge members' attitudes of the two bills.
A majority of Republicans have favored relying on cuts or changes in the sales tax to bridge the gap, and Democrats want to alter the state income tax structure before agreeing to a continued sales tax hike.
If no deal is reached by the end of the special session, the Legislature likely will end up in a new special session when the regular session ends in June. The regular session starts March 12, and lawmakers cannot generally take up revenue-raising proposals.
House Bill 23 would allow the state to continue collecting taxes on some items exempted before the 2016 changes and to extend a quarter of a penny or half a penny of sales tax that would otherwise expire June 30. House Bill 8 would cut a tax break for middle- and upper-income people who itemize deductions when they file their taxes each year — a Democratic priority that many Republicans oppose.
Without one bill's passage, it's unlikely the other could currently get enough votes.
On Wednesday, the House voted 38-67 to reject Rep. Stephen Dwight's sales tax proposal. It needed 70 votes to pass, but was steadfastly opposed by Democrats and some Republicans. The vote on that bill sent the chamber into a meltdown, with members from all sides publicly chiding each other and airing frustrations with the chamber's leadership.
Friday afternoon, the House narrowly rejected New Orleans Democratic Rep. Walt Leger's income tax bill in a 50-51 vote. It needed 53 votes to pass.
That vote, which came after pleas from members wanting to advance legislation to the Senate for consideration ahead of the mandatory Wednesday end to the session, immediately became controversial as members and the governor's office questioned votes recorded for legislators who were not present for the vote.
Both bills could be brought back up for consideration as the debate continues. House leaders were polling members to see what changes would need to be made to get the votes needed to pass. The chamber is scheduled to return Sunday at 5 p.m.
Meanwhile, those who oppose both of the tax bills have argued , among other issues, that the size of the gap remains uncertain because the state hasn't yet factored in a boost it will receive from a federal tax overhaul, increased oil prices and a rosier economy.
"I don't think we need to be here right now. What's the urgency?" said Rep. Alan Seabaugh, a Shreveport Republican who is among the chamber's most staunchly anti-tax. "When we actually know what the numbers are, that might be the time to do this."
But Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, Democrats in the House and some moderate Republicans argue that inaction threatens state government services, including the popular Taylor Opportunity Program for Students scholarships and rural hospitals.
"The failure to act and act now will have disastrous consequences for higher ed and health care in our state," said Rep. Rob Shadoin, R-Ruston. "This isn't about just math down here. It's about faces of people in your district."
Several lawmakers remarked that without movement on one of the two bills this week the session would likely end no closer to bridging the budget gap.
The House has advanced a slate of Republican-priority bills that do not address the budget gap but were required to get the chamber's leadership on board for supporting revenue measures.
Those bills – which would direct the state to create a new budget transparency website, set a new spending cap, beef up Medicaid eligibility checks, and institute a considerably weakened version of a Medicaid work requirement – are now advancing to the Senate for consideration.
Because budget and revenue bills generally have to originate in the House, the Senate has spent the large part of the 17-day special session in limbo awaiting action from the log-jammed House. The session costs about $60,000 per day.