Louisiana House Appropriations Committee Chairman Cameron Henry is cautiously optimistic about the progress that’s being made at the State Capitol a week into the special legislative session.
“Everybody is working as hard as they can — as smart as they can — to make sure we are fixing the problems,” Henry told the Chamber of Commerce of East Baton Rouge during its Tuesday luncheon.
As head of the House’s budget committee, Henry has spent the past week hearing hours of testimony from state agencies about the dire situations they face if their funding is slashed to make up for the $900 million deficit in the budget year that ends June 30 and the $2 billion shortfall in the budget that begins July 1.
Behind the scenes, Henry is among key House Republicans looking for a way to fix what has become a steady cycle of budget problems for Louisiana.
During the lawmaker’s discussion with the largely Republican-leaning crowd, Henry restated the GOP’s commitment to cutting out government waste and paring back expenses, noting that state contracts are under review, among other items.
But he also cautioned that tax increases likely will be necessary to balance the budget. In particular, he stressed that businesses could see some of their exemptions go away.
“The reality is that we are all paying something,” Henry gestured to the room. “To have a company come in, and they can’t tell you one tax they pay — that’s a problem.”
Henry said that the key tax proposals for people to watch will be the proposed 1-cent increase in the sales tax, attempts to remove some exemptions from the existing sales tax, and proposed hikes to the tobacco and alcohol taxes.
“Those are the four main ones that you’ll see,” he said.
All are part of Gov. John Bel Edwards’ plan to help bridge the budget gap.
But Henry warned that state agencies are in for cuts ahead. He said the nearly $2 billion shortfall in the coming year is what the Legislature faces if it fulfills agencies’ “wish lists.”
“They’re not going to get everything on it. We just can’t afford to do it,” he said. “We have to rein in spending as fast as we can.”
The Metairie Republican was in line to be the GOP’s pick for House speaker until shortly before the Jan. 11 inauguration, when behind-the-scenes deals paved the way for House Speaker Taylor Barras, R-New Iberia, to take the mantle over Edwards’ Democratic pick, Rep. Walt Leger III, of New Orleans.
Louisiana governors, by tradition, have wielded the unusual power of selecting legislative leaders. Edwards, a Democrat, had sought to line up support behind Leger, until Barras emerged as a candidate that the Republican majority could rally behind, with Henry’s blessing after he couldn’t get the votes.
“We knew where they were and we knew we had to come up with something,” he said, recounting the complex strategy that Republicans sprung into to ensure they would win the House speaker’s race.
The weekend before the speaker’s election, Barras was found to be a candidate that could win over Republicans who were leaning toward Leger, he said. Henry said he made sure that, if he couldn’t win outright, then he and Barras would come in second and third places in the first round of the speaker’s race. He then dropped out, knowing that Barras would pull Henry’s votes and win.
“I knew the strategy was there,” he told the rapt crowd.