Special Session Woes


It was a slow day for state lawmakers at the State Capitol.  The Senate came in during the morning and quickly recessed until the evening. The House was called to order after 3 p.m. and then also recessed.

For much of the day, key discussions happened away from the chambers, as another special legislative session could be headed to an end without resolution of the state’s latest budget crisis.

Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat facing a majority Republican legislature, met with House leaders earlier in the day Thursday, but his administration said during mid-afternoon that no agreement had been reached with House leaders on how to avoid the billion-dollar fiscal cliff. It is called that because a billion dollars in temporary taxes passed by the legislature will expire on July 1, and Edwards has said that without new revenues to fill the holes in the state operating budget there will be deep cuts to higher education, including the popular TOPS Program and state funded health care services.

"He has asked the leaders of the House, both from the Republican side and Democratic side to get in a room, sit down, see if they can't work out their differences so that we can get something to solve this serious problem,” said Senate President John Alario, R-Westwego, considered the "dean" of the legislature.

"The only thing I do know that's come out of it is we don't have an agreement yet,” said Edwards’ Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne.

Wednesday evening, a Republican bill to retain one-quarter of the temporary 5th penny of the state sales tax failed miserably in the House, with Democrats and some Republicans rejecting it.

"As it stands right now, the Senate has no authority to do anything. The House has to find two-thirds of the members to bring that bill back up, but then it has to go through the entire process to get to the Senate. So as it stands right now, the Senate is treading water waiting for the House to act,” said Sen. Conrad Appel, R-Metairie.

"The constitution says that all revenue measures and appropriations have to originate in the House of Representatives. We can't do anything about that, so we have to wait until they send an instrument. We had hoped they would have sent us something that we could at least work with and fashion.  I think a lot of the House members were hoping that we get and be able to fashion in such a way to solve the problem,” said Alario.

It is the fifth special session since Edwards came into office in 2016, all dealing with budget crises. Edwards has repeatedly called on lawmakers who do not like his ideas to provide areas of the budget where they prefer to make deep budget cuts.

Some lawmakers said the current special session should have been delayed until after the regular legislative sessions ends in early June.

But Edwards, many Democrats and some Republicans said the time was now given the uncertainty of what budget cuts may be needed without new revenue.

"You have to try to work something out, I mean the idea that you don't call a special session and we can just wait, well, the same items that are on the table right will be on the table for the next special session if there is in fact is one,” said Sen. Wesley Bishop, D-New Orleans.Members of the Legislative Black Caucus said higher sales taxes are not the solution, and they have pushed for a change income taxes to garner more taxes from the wealthy in the state, as opposed to an extension of any portion of the extra penny placed on sales taxes."We're going to continue to work, but it's starting to look more and more like another special session at the end of June…We can't have this sales tax continue. The sales tax is regressive. That means it's harder on poor people and we can't balance this state's budget on the backs of poor people,” said Rep. Gary Carter, D-New Orleans.

"I think we have a responsibility to the people of this state to solve the fiscal problems. We said a couple of years ago we would do the temporary sales tax and come back and do fiscal reform to try to get this on a sound financial basis, that saying, for some reason, people have forgotten that commitment and they’ve moved to where we are now,” said Alario.

While Sen. Appel said the fiscal cliff should be less than a billion dollars given that the State Treasury could rake in close to $300 million in additional state income tax revenue because of changes to federal income tax law, he does not believe the entire budget shortfall can be erased with that and budget cuts.

"Some combination of reductions in spending along with raising some revenue, probably in the form of some portion of a sales tax would solve the problem overnight,” said . Appel.

The Edwards administration said the special session’s timing is appropriate to end uncertainty will be funded during the new fiscal year which begins July 1.

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