Louisiana Session Ends

Senators and their staff await information about the ongoing budget negotiations between legislative leaders on the final day of the regular legislative session, on Thursday, June 8, 2017, in Baton Rouge, La. (AP Photo/Melinda Deslatte)

A much-anticipated closed-door meeting of Louisiana House members, from both parties, was intended to help move along discussion of troubled state finances.

At the same time, Gov. John Bel Edwards was trekking around the state for private briefings with business leaders, the last of the series in Lake Charles this week.

What was so secret? Not much.

The briefings given to the legislators, and presumably to the governor's coffee klatches, are hardly a surprise to anyone. Louisiana's tax system is a mess; it's not collecting the revenue to pay the bills, and it's doing so in ways that no other state would embrace, even given the considerable variance among the states.

We're stuck. And we're not sure the closed-door sessions lead us closer to the up-front votes needed by legislators to change things.

The good news is that the legislators' session was a bipartisan gathering, intended to start building a consensus on fixes.

"We just need to talk. That's what this is all about," Democratic leader Gene Reynolds, of Minden, said. "It's what they should be doing in Washington." An "open discussion" is needed, added Republican leader Lance Harris, of Alexandria.

By law, state officials have to estimate the shortfall ahead, and that is $1.5 billion on July 1, even with some new permanent taxes already passed to patch previous budget holes. The big hit is the expiration July 1 of temporary sales taxes, passed in an emergency response when Edwards took office.

Louisiana now has the distinction of being the highest sales tax state in the nation. And we're still not adequately paying the bills; in just one example, lawmakers punted into the new budget year a big payment on Medicaid management contracts. It's a false expedient that shows how rickety state finances remain.

Sooner or later, the time for simmering of private discussions will be over. The governor, burned already in budget debates, says he won't call a special session of the Legislature unless there is general agreement with House and Senate GOP leaders.

What has to be done has already been demonstrated for all to see, in public sessions of the tax policy committee earlier set up by lawmakers. But those recommendations are politically difficult and thus the Legislature kicks the can down the road one more time.

Maybe July 1 is a real deadline, but at this point, at least a short-term renewal of all or part of the "emergency" sales tax will probably be necessary, insiders say. We don't like that a bit: Legislators should have the courage to really fix this problem, permanently, not regress to the 1990s when "temporary" sales taxes had to be renewed every two years.

As the old saying goes, there is nothing so permanent as a temporary government emergency. And that won't change unless legislators, in public, find the courage and will to do so.