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La. lawmakers punt tax talks to Sunday, as special session timeline thins

BATON ROUGE, La. (LOCAL 33) (FOX 44) - On what Louisiana legislators members dubbed a “do or die” day, members of the state House didn’t do much Friday to close a looming budget gap. They instead chose to drag whatever life remains in the 17-day special session, which must end Wednesday, into the weekend.

Lawmakers will reconvene Sunday at 5 p.m., after a week of failed attempts to help offset $994 million in sales tax revenue that expires July 1. So far in this session, no revenue bills have passed the House. A continued stalemate would threaten heavy spending cuts to state hospitals, public safety, higher education and the TOPS college tuition program.

“Like a great New York Yankee said, ‘When there’s a fork in the road, take it,’” said Rep. Walt Leger (D-New Orleans), quoting late Hall of Fame catcher Yogi Berra. “Members, we’re at a fork in the road.”

This week, in particular, representatives rejected two bills thought critical to compromise. Efforts to revive the failed legislation propelled Democrats and Republicans into a series of back-room meetings Friday, with each side angling for tallies needed to send measures to the Senate.

“We can see the goal line, but we need to get a little closer,” concluded Rep. Stephen Dwight (R-Lake Charles), whose bill to replace a quarter-penny of the expiring sales tax failed Wednesday in a 38-67 vote. House members could reconsider it this weekend.

Dwight’s measure would generate roughly $300 million a year, largely by moving the state sales tax rate from 5 percent for 4.25 percent. That rate would fall to 4 percent in July 2021, unless legislators vote to renew it. The bill has support from House Republican leaders and strict opposition from the all-Democratic Legislative Black Caucus.

Democrats instead favor changing income tax brackets and cutting tax breaks for higher earners who itemize deductions. A bill to do just that, sponsored by Leger, failed Friday in a 50-51 vote, just three votes short of passage. The legislation, which would raise $79 million next year,  could also return to the House floor Sunday.

”We can move the bill forward, or we can choose not to move the bill forward,” Leger said. “There are distinct realities that will come into existence once we come to that decision.”

Lawmakers only have a limited time to consider revenue measures before nearly a billion dollars fall off the state coffers this summer. Louisiana law prevents legislators from debating tax bills during this year’s three-month regular session, which begins March 12. They could hold a special session after June 4, though some House members worry the time in between would leave college students and rural hospital patients in limbo, wondering if their services will survive the shortfall.

“I think we owe it to the people who are making life-changing decisions to give them as much certainty right now,” said Rep. Tanner Magee (R-Houma).

Rep. Rob Shadoin (R-Ruston), quoting the Gospel of Matthew, voiced similar frustration that without replacement revenue, cuts to state agencies would cause layoffs and fewer services.

“That which you have done to the least of thee, you have done to me,” Shadoin paraphrased to colleagues, before adding his takeaway. ”Who’s their lobbyist? You’re their lobbyist. You’re their voice. Use it.”

Others questioned the size of the fiscal cliff and the urgency of closing it now. Rep. Alan Seabaugh (R-Shreveport) said Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards told a “bald-faced lie” when he sized the gap at $994 million. The representative suggested the governor is not considering that federal tax changes and increased oil prices could shrink the amount of revenue needed.

But contrary to Seabaugh’s claim, Edwards has acknowledged that state income tax collections, raised to balance federal tax reductions, will offset the shortfall by $302 million. The adjustment would leave a $692 million gap for legislators to offset either through revenue or cuts.

”Governor Edwards is not a liar,” Leger said.

Edwards’ aides said the governor invited Seabaugh to his fourth-floor office at the State Capitol building, following the remarks. The Shreveport Republican initially indicated he would meet with the governor Friday night, though officials with the governor say he never visited.

House members said they have never seen such a divisive chamber.

”This is irresponsible, immature and ridiculous,” said Rep. Julie Stokes (R-Kenner), who took office in March 2013. “I signed up for a pragmatic, logical group that would fix problems.”

”Where is that group?” asked a reporter.

”I don’t know,” she said.

Stokes, after a nearly six-month battle with breast cancer, has been in remission since January. She suggested lawmakers return to a “collegial body” and reach across aisles in the special session’s final days.

“Life isn’t made of an infinite number of moments to waste on stuff like this,” she said.

State estimates project that a special session costs between $50,000 and $60,000 a day.

Since this session began Feb. 19, the House has advanced a few Republican-backed measures that do not address the dollars falling off the books. Such bills would tighten spending caps and build a budget transparency website. On Friday, the House passed legislation to enact work, education or volunteer requirements for some Medicaid recipients, though amendments prevent the Louisiana Department of Health from stripping coverage from those without work. These items are bound for Senate consideration.

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