BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Louisiana lawmakers gave up on a tax deal and closed their special session early Monday, unable to break a partisan impasse over a budget gap just months away.
Attention now shifts to the regular legislative session opening next week, when lawmakers are charged with balancing the budget for the year starting July 1 with nearly $700 million less in state financing than they had this year. The TOPS free college tuition program and health services for the poor and disabled could be at risk of deep cuts.
Gov. John Bel Edwards called the session to replace expiring temporary taxes with other taxes, saying without the money, spending reductions would damage critical services. But the Democratic governor couldn’t broker a deal between House Republicans and House Democrats.
After 15 days of work, lawmakers passed two bills. Neither would help raise money to close the looming “fiscal cliff.”
Factions in the House disagreed over which tax types should be used to replace expiring taxes — or how much of the gap should be closed with taxes.
GOP lawmakers who were willing to support revenue favored sales taxes, while Democrats, particularly the Black Caucus, wanted income taxes. Some Republicans in the chamber insisted they never needed to be in a special session at all because it was too soon to know the true size of the budget hole. At times, even when it appeared enough votes existed to pass major tax measures, deals broke down over other, unrelated issues.
“I believe it was a chess match between the Democrats and the Republicans at the end, and the whole board crashed,” said Rep. Mark Abraham, a Lake Charles Republican.
More than $1.3 billion in temporary taxes passed by lawmakers in 2015 and 2016 expire when the new budget year begins July 1. Other increases in tax types along with money expected from state income-tax collections caused by federal tax changes are estimated to offset some, but not all the gap, leaving a hole pegged at $692 million.
The do-nothing session was marked by frustration and mistrust in the House, which took a series of votes over several days rejecting tax ideas. House lawmakers accused each other of reneging on deals, criticized colleagues on social media and clashed with the governor’s staff over who was to blame for the stalemate as the days ticked down.
“We have certainly lost something around here. We’ve lost our way, members,” said New Orleans Rep. Walt Leger, the highest-ranking House Democrat. “We have a lot of work ahead of us. My solemn prayer is that we do come back together.”
Edwards said the House Republican leadership “did not negotiate in good faith.”
Republicans said Democrats kept changing their demands in the negotiations. In a statement, GOP House Speaker Taylor Barras said Edwards “contributed to the collapse of this session” by demanding the full budget gap be offset and “being unable to garner the support of his House Democrats.”
Democratic Rep. Ted James of Baton Rouge, a Black Caucus member, suggested Barras struck deals with Edwards that he didn’t uphold.
With most tax measures required to start in the House, senators could do little but watch as tax talks failed.
Special sessions are estimated to cost $50,000 to $60,000 a day, so the 15-day failed gathering cost taxpayers at least $750,000.
While Barras supported the holding of the special session and agreed that some replacement taxes were needed, he didn’t have the backing of his full GOP membership, some of whom are strongly anti-tax. That meant Barras needed support from Democrats in the majority-Republican chamber to get passage of tax measures.
Barras and other Republicans willing to consider taxes wanted to temporarily renew one-quarter of an expiring 1 percent state sales tax, along with temporary elimination of some sales tax breaks. Democrats, particularly members of the Black Caucus, argued that would more heavily hit the poor. They wanted to tweak income tax laws, such as scaling back a tax break allowed for upper-income taxpayers.
The two sides also split over unrelated proposals, such as Medicaid restrictions, that Barras and other Republicans wanted tied to passage of taxes.
News 10 spoke with some local representatives about the special session, here’s what they had to say:
“They (Republicans) could not come together with the Democrats to say, this is what we’re going to do to fight for Acadiana and keep our health care, access to the most vulnerable population open, and to have some stability here in Acadiana,” said Rep. Dustin Miller, (D) District 40.
“We (Republicans) were willing to extend the quarter penny, just one quarter of the temporary penny that we had passed a few years ago. We were willing to extend that, and the Democrats were not willing to do that. And they wanted to pass higher income tax, and we were not willing to raise the income tax,” said Rep. Nancy Landry, (R) District 31
“The solutions are on the table. There are solutions and it’s not about tax, all taxes, it’s about adjusting our income tax brackets, it’s about taking some cuts in government. But the solutions are there, it’s partisan gridlock, like much of what we see in Washington D.C.,” said Rep. Terry Landry Sr., (D) District 96.
And in a press conference after the special session adjourned in the House and the Senate, Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards (D), did not mince words.
“It is terribly unfortunate though, because in the next several months, we’re going to have so much uncertainty in the state of Louisiana, that we could have, and should have avoided,” said Edwards.