‘Who’s going to blink first?’ Louisiana House, Senate waiting for other to act as special session nears March 9 end

Politically incorrect Donald Trump might call it a Mexican standoff.

The Louisiana Legislature on Tuesday stalled for the second consecutive day over how to solve the state’s budget crisis as leaders in the House and the Senate each waited for the other side to act first.

House leaders want the Senate Finance Committee to decide on how much it will reduce the budget cuts passed by the House last week before they hold votes on three bills that would raise taxes on cigarettes, alcohol and consumer and business purchases.

Senate leaders want the House to approve the three tax bills before they decide on the final amount of budget cuts.

The House did not vote on the three tax bills scheduled for Tuesday, and the Senate Finance Committee did not hear key legislation involving cuts.

The inaction means that the special session moved one day closer to its finale on March 9, with lawmakers $150 million to $200 million short of closing a $900 million budget gap to prevent deep cuts in government programs this year.

State Rep. Gene Reynolds, who is not politically incorrect, described the standoff this way.

“It’s kind of like two gunslingers facing off at each end of the town,” said Reynolds, D-Minden. “Who’s going to blink first?”

Senators did move forward on one key part of the deficit-cutting package Tuesday night when they approved House Bill 62, which would raise the state sales tax by 1 cent for five years. The vote was 29-10, three more than the two-thirds needed in the 39-member Senate. The only Democrat who voted against HB62 was state Sen. John Milkovich, of Keithville.

The House passed the bill last week, but the extra penny would expire after 18 months under it.

The Senate version could reduce the sales tax faster under an amendment approved Tuesday that calls for cutting one-fourth of the extra penny for every $225 million that the state collects in additional revenue — other than sales taxes — compared with the last official estimate.

Since the House and the Senate passed different versions of HB62, a small group of representatives and senators will have to settle on a final bill to be presented to each chamber for final approval before the special session ends.

Legislators call it a “clean” penny because it would not include most of the nearly 200 items that are exempt from the existing four cents of sales tax.

The extra penny, which would give Louisiana the country’s highest sales tax rate, would take effect April 1 and raise $210 million this year. It would be the single biggest tax increase as part of the package aimed at eliminating the $900 million shortfall. The Senate has several measures before it that the House has passed that would raise $80 million this year.

In all, Gov. John Bel Edwards wants to fill the budget shortfall with $350 million in higher tax revenue, $328 million in one-time funding — $128 million from the rainy day fund and $200 million from a settlement with BP — and about $160 million in cuts in government programs.

The governor and the Legislature already have cut $60 million in state spending planned for this year.

The key measure hung up before the Senate Finance Committee, House Bill 122, would cut spending by another $100 million this year. But many senators believe that some of the cuts are politically unacceptable — especially $44 million in cuts for the state Department of Education that senators say would force the cancellation of college admission tests and halt funding for the state’s voucher programs.

Two key Republicans, state Rep. Lance Harris, of Alexandria, and Rep. Cameron Henry, of Metairie, said in interviews Tuesday that many House members want to know the exact amount of cuts the committee will accept.

“They want to have every fact available before they take votes,” said Harris, in a comment echoed by Henry. Harris heads the Republican House delegation while Henry chairs the Appropriations Committee and is the sponsor of HB122.

State Sen. Eric LaFleur, D-Ville Platte, who chairs the Finance Committee, said he expects the committee to vote on HB122 on Thursday.

Asked to explain why the committee didn’t act Tuesday, LaFleur said, “What’s the final amount of revenue we’ll have [from the House]?”

Based on what representatives said Tuesday, the House will not provide that information Wednesday by voting on the three tax bills.

House Bill 14 by state Rep. Walt Leger, D-New Orleans, would raise the cigarette tax by 22 cents to $1.08 per pack. The measure, which would raise $16 million this year, needs at least 70 votes, or two-thirds, in the 105-member House.

House Bill 27 by state Rep. Kenny Cox, D-Natchitoches, would raise the tax on beer, wine and liquor by one to four cents per beer, glass of wine or shot. The measure would raise $6.7 million this year and also needs at least 70 votes.

House Bill 61 by state Rep. Jay Morris, R-Monroe, would remove many of the exemptions on one cent of the existing four cents of sales tax. So like HB62, Morris’ bill is called cleaning up the penny. It would raise about $20 million this year and requires at least 70 votes.

Morris said the measure would hit many multi-state companies that pay little or no taxes in Louisiana.

House Speaker Taylor Barras, R-New Iberia, said in an interview that he is sensing that the cigarette tax increase and Morris’ sales tax bill have a better chance of passing than the alcohol tax.

Barras and Senate President John Alario met Tuesday afternoon with Edwards in his fourth floor office in the Capitol.

“The governor is trying to prod both of us to get things done,” Alario, R-Westwego, said in an interview after the Senate adjourned.

Edwards also met with five Democrats who had not yet agreed to the cigarette tax increase. They were: Reps. Mike Danahay, of Lake Charles; Robert Johnson, of Marksville; Marcus Hunter, of Monroe; Major Thibaut, of New Roads; and James Armes, of Leesville.

In a bid to nail down the support he needs, Edwards is expected to attend the Republican and Democratic Legislative Caucus meetings Wednesday morning.

Follow Tyler Bridges on Twitter, @TegBridges.

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