When the Louisiana Legislature left the State Capitol on June 25 with an agreement to continue nine-twentieths, or 0.45 percent, of an expiring 1-cent sales tax set to expire, lawmakers were relieved.
Gov. John Bel Edwards called the end of the third special session of the year and the seventh since he took office in 2016 a "night celebrated by all of Louisiana."
He and other officials declared a victorious end to the "fiscal cliff" the state faced when more than $1 billion in temporary tax measures expired at the end of June.
But the reality is the temporary extension of a partial tax hike may not exactly be the panacea to the state's decadeslong fiscal woes as it has been made out to be.
When Edwards, a Democrat, took office in January 2016, the state immediately faced a nearly half-a-billion-dollar shortfall at the midway point in the budget. The budget for the following fiscal year was $2 billion in the hole.
Lawmakers agreed to a two-year, 1-cent sales tax hike as a "bridge" to a more sound fiscal policy for the state — something that would be a mix of reining in spending while providing for a more stable tax structure.
Two years later, more than $500 million still had not been addressed, which prompted three special sessions that cost taxpayers about $60,000 a day before lawmakers agreed to another temporary sales tax patch.
It's a familiar cycle for Louisiana, which has been in a near-perpetual budget crisis dating back decades.
So why can't Louisiana's elected officials actually stabilize state spending with how much revenue it's collecting?
"I think we probably are eternal optimists," Senate President John Alario, a Westwego Republican who has been in the Legislature since 1972, said with a chuckle in a recent interview. "We always think things are going to turn around."
The cycle dates back at least to the oil bust of the 1980s when then-Gov. Buddy Roemer inherited a nearly $1 billion budget deficit when he took office. Lawmakers made quick fixes: short-term borrowing, shutting down nonessential programs and legalizing gambling for an infusion of much-needed cash.
Just a few years later in 2002, the state had a major overhaul of taxes when it eliminated sales taxes on groceries and home utilities as part of a deal tied to increased income taxes on middle and upper-income households. After Hurricane Katrina flushed the state's coffers with a boost from federal support, lawmakers rolled back the income tax part of the deal, which is commonly known as the "Stelly Plan."
In addition to that nearly $1 billion hit to the state budget, the state upped its betting on business incentives that gave away millions to try to help the state's workforce, often at questionable returns on investment.
And since then, the temporary patches have continued. The shifting of one-time resources to cover gaps during then-Gov. Bobby Jindal's administration has frequently been cited among the major culprits of the state's budget woes.
Louisiana lawmakers always seem to be looking to the next windfall — an unexpected boost in oil prices, a turnaround in the oil and gas industry that will restore jobs in areas that have been wracked with layoffs or some other unexpected money source.
"Quite frankly, I'm a bit disappointed that we haven't been able to get to that point of being out of this," Alario said.
He said that the recent sales tax deal, brokered as the session teetered on the edge of collapse just weeks before the start of a new fiscal year, is at least a relief after so many tumultuous budget cycles. The tax hike runs through 2025.
"It gives us some big breathing room," Alario said.
Alario said he would like to see the state's fiscal stability play out as an issue in the 2019 elections. Edwards has already announced his plans to seek re-election to a second term. No Republicans have formally announced a challenge to him.
"I think it's one of those things that a governor is going to have to take leadership on," Alario said.
Edwards said he will continue to push for fiscal reform heading into the final year of his first term, but he bluntly added that he doesn't have high expectations from the Legislature on that front.
"At this point in time, we should be realistic. If it didn't happen in the first three years of this term, it's not going to happen next year in an election year," he said during his news conference that marked the latest session's end. "It's just simply too hard, but we should all be encouraged by the fact that we have achieved predictability and stability in the state of Louisiana and that we are going to move forward in a way that should inspire confidence in people who want to invest in the state."
The budget deal reached this year relies on a sales tax that expires in 2025, but it doesn't necessarily mean that it will keep the state's finances afloat. It also relies on money from a lawsuit settlement tied to the BP oil spill in 2010 and requires what Edwards has called "strategic cuts" in some agencies budgets.
In just two years, a continuation budget, which is how much government would spend to maintain the level of services but also keep up with mandatory cost inflation, would be back at nearly $1 billion in the hole, said Robert Travis Scott, president of the Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana and a member of a blue ribbon panel created in 2016 with the mission to recommend structural changes in the budget.
"Here we go again," he said. "It never ends. The shortfalls never end."
Brett Geymann led a vocal group of conservative lawmakers known as the "Fiscal Hawks" during the Jindal administration who were frequently at odds with the then-governor over state spending.
A Lake Charles businessman and Republican, Geymann has been out of the Legislature for just over two years, but he says he's continued to observe some of the same patterns as when he was there.
"Every year, the Legislature finds themselves in the same position — chasing revenue with what we're trying to spend," Geymann said. "It's not something that just happened this year.
"In my opinion, you still haven't addressed the issue."
Geymann said he had hoped the Legislature would reach a point where it would tie the budget to the state's economic growth, which has lagged with the slumping oil and gas industry in recent years.
"It just appears to me that all the Legislature seems to do is look at 'How can we get the amount of money we need to fund everything?' and not 'What do we really need to fund?'" Geymann said.
Edwards and others claim it's not for a lack of trying.
"It's been at the top of my priority list," the governor said. "That's why it's been on the special session calls earlier this year."
Edwards said his revenue secretary, Kimberly Robinson, who chaired the structural reform task force, has repeatedly spelled out the blue ribbon panel's recommendations to the Legislature.
"I don't want to dwell on the negative that comes from the fact that we really haven't done structural tax reform over the past few years," Edwards said, though he stressed that the 1-cent sales tax hike was adopted as a temporary fix while lawmakers addressed the bigger issue. "There were 27 months from the time it was created 'til the time it expired to allow structural reform to take place."
But just because the budget may soon be out of whack again, Scott said taxpayers may not have to fret over another tax hike.
"There's not going to be an effort to try to raise revenue again next year," Scott said.
Scott said it's still possible that legislators will review whether state tax credits and similar perks are worthwhile.
"As far as having any real tax reform or new revenue initiatives, I'd be very doubtful to see that," he said.
At the same time as the state is facing questions about its budget stability, lawmakers this year agreed to a modest increase in a tax break for the working poor that, starting in 2019, which will cost the state about $20 million a year.
Similarly, lawmakers continue to propose new endeavors for the state to take on and see areas where the state could improve through more funding, from prekindergarten education programs to foster care.
"There's all this new stuff that people want to do," Scott said, but no one says where the money will come from.
Scott said the state stumbled into a slight reform proposed by the task force through no doing of the Legislature. The task force had recommended that the state try to balance its reliance between sales taxes, which make up a majority of revenue, and income taxes. When Congress approved its major federal tax overhaul six months ago, state income tax collections in Louisiana automatically went up because of a quirky link between state and federal policy.
"In some ways, they inadvertently bumbled into trying to fulfill one of the recommendations," Scott said. "The task force thought because we were heading so far in one direction and because sales taxes are a bit more volatile, that if you have a system based that relies more on income taxes it would help keep up with budget."
"That wasn't done as an intentional reform, they just sort of serendipitously found this reform," he said.
From the sidelines, Geymann said he's frustrated by what feels like an inability to act.
When he was in the Legislature, Jindal, the Republican wunderkind who would go on to run for president, was governor. Republicans ruled both chambers of the state Legislature.
"We were able to do some small pieces of reform but nothing major," he said.
Now under a divided government with a Democratic governor and an ultra-conservative GOP-controlled House, "I suppose it becomes even harder," Geymann said.
"I don't know how long that we are going to keep doing this."