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Legislature meets in special session to address the state's fiscal crisis Friday March 2, 2018, in Baton Rouge, La. Rep. Barry Ivey, R-Central, left, makes a point while chatting with House Speaker Rep. Taylor Barras, R-New Iberia, right, during a break.

At the beginning of the 2017 regular session, House Speaker Taylor Barras and the Republican leadership talked about bold, brave, new ideas that would percolate up to fix a financial structure that routinely can’t raise enough money to pay the state’s bills.

Not a single plan emerged from last year’s legislative meeting, which necessitated the 15-day special session that ended last week – again without passing a single measure to address another looming shortfall.

Lawmakers convene again Monday for their regularly scheduled session with the task of balancing the state budget by cutting up to $700 million, now their only option. That means, once again, the least protected expenses – for higher education, health care, and prisons – are vulnerable.

All this brings to mind the words Dean Acheson, the mid-20th century statesman, used to deep-six J. William Fulbright’s candidacy for Secretary of State in 1960. He told newly elected President John F. Kennedy, over tea, that the foreign policy specialist was great about “making speeches calling for bold, brave, new ideas, and yet always lacking in bold, brave, new ideas,” according to David Halberstam in "The Best & The Brightest."

A more worrisome quote from the Eastern establishment came last week from Standard & Poor’s, the credit rating agency whose opinion impacts how much Louisiana taxpayers will have pony up for interest on state loans. “In our view, political risk – as evidenced by the legislative gridlock during the special session – has emerged as a credit weakness, which has the potential to stunt what otherwise has been recent positive momentum in the state.”

Legislators, and the state’s voters, are sharply divided about government’s role in how best to make people’s lives easier. One side says government needs to get out of the way and stop spending so much. The other side sees government as a catalyst for improvement.

It is a conflict that legislators need to work out in public debate.

But each side is operating in a bubble with its own set of facts and its own slogans that only reinforces views of supporters and demonizes those of opponents, said state Rep. Julie Stokes, R-Kenner.

“The divide is truly over rhetoric. Are we going to deal with a pragmatic problem? Or are we going to say what people want to hear?” Stokes told The Advocate last week.

State Rep. Kenny Havard, R-St. Francisville, has pressed a measure that would have lowered the overall tax rate but got rid of most exemptions. It failed in committee.

“All I heard was ‘We have a spending problem.’ All I wanted was to get the bill out on the floor so we could have a serious debate,” Havard said. “We do raise enough revenue, plenty of revenue, really. And it’s not a spending problem, though there are areas where we can be more efficient. It’s just that industry, particularly big industry, has too many exemptions. But I don’t see any urgency among my colleagues to make true tax reform.”

“Changing the status quo in Louisiana is difficult. It’s like a warm blanket for many people,” said state Rep. Barry Ivey. “Maybe it’s a protection instinct. But the bigger problem is declining revenues because of the state’s tax policy.”

The Central Republican was elected as a tea party conservative and has forwarded many ideas that would change how state government does business.

And he is the target of much anger aroused when he accused his colleagues on the House floor of dragging their feet rather than give the Democratic governor “a political win by doing tax reform.”

But Ivey is undeterred, if not optimistic.

He’s filed 32 bills for this session, including legislation that would change a lucrative local property tax break – the Industrial Tax Exemption Program – from two five-year periods to one of seven years total. It would give manufacturers stability and allow local governments to levy taxes earlier, he said.

Ivey, Havard and Stokes are outsiders in a House with so many political factions that leadership can’t find the 70 votes needed to pass tax legislation.

Having plenty of down time as they waited for leaders to negotiate during the special session, frustrated legislators found each other and started talking about forming another clique, which Ivey calls the pragmatists.

Havard, a small businessman,calls the forming delegation “the centrist caucus” and says about a dozen representatives from both parties are poised to join.

Stokes, a certified public accountant with strong ties to the business community, wouldn’t hazard a guess on how many potential members the caucus might have, but says the ranks are growing mostly from legislators “who are just plain tired of only talking rhetoric and not doing anything.”

Follow Mark Ballard on Twitter, @MarkBallardCnb.