By Sarah Gamard and Tryfon Boukouvidis, LSU Manship School News Service
BATON ROUGE — After a weekend filled with anxiety, several legislators said Sunday night that they had been determined to find middle ground to keep efforts to avoid a $1 billion fiscal cliff from collapsing.
Those fears pushed members of the House Ways and Means committee to make enough compromises on issues over which they had long feuded to send several bills to the floor and keep alive the possibility of a solution to the state’s $1 billion budget shortage.
Still, some lawmakers said they were not sure when the committee debate started Sunday afternoon that the compromises would be enough to keep the special legislative session alive.
And most said they are not sure what will happen this week on the House floor, where the bills could run into another heated debate.
Rep. Ted James, D- Baton Rouge and the chairman-elect of the Legislative Black Caucus, said his group’s success last week in temporarily blocking a sales tax bill unless Republicans agreed to limit itemized deductions for wealthier taxpayers got everyone thinking and set the stage for Sunday’s deals.
“Folks were shocked last week when we stopped that bill,” James said Sunday evening. “It kind of forced everybody to sit around the table and just talk.”
“Had we not stopped that bill last week, none of those bills tonight would have gotten out,” he said.
“Most of us have been saying compromise is not a dirty word,” Rep. Katrina Jackson, D-Monroe, said. “The Legislature is “just trying to move some things to the floor before it gets too late.”
So what else changed? Not much, it seems. Democratic and Republican leaders met Thursday night after the standoff with the Black Caucus over the bills, and some lawmakers said there was perhaps a bit of arm-twisting over the weekend.
Overall, lawmakers realized they had to pass something on Sunday, even if it meant approving bills that included some things they despised.
The big compromise came when four Republicans voted with Democrats to place limits on the itemized deductions that will raise $79 million in revenue.
In return, James and other Democrats agreed to extend a quarter of a penny of the extra penny of sales tax that was due to expire this summer. The state would collect that quarter of a penny for the next three years, and that would raise $300 million a year.
The votes also tied the fate of those bills to the passage of seven GOP-favored bills, including one that would create a Medicaid work requirement and another that would cap state spending.
“It was not easy to vote for those bills with amendments on them,” said James, referring to the tie-in with the other GOP proposals.
Some Republicans, like Rep. Alan Seabaugh, R- Shreveport, argued that the governor’s numbers regarding a budget deficit are too high. The $994 million shortfall, he says, does not account for the rising price of oil and all of the tax breaks granted to Louisiana residents from the new federal tax bill.
But James said that “when rubber met the road, folks recognized we really had to sit down and compromise.”
James still has concerns about how the bills advanced. “We don’t lump ten bills together that have nothing to do with each other,” he said. He said he hoped this practice “doesn’t extend past this special session, because it’s just not the way we should legislate.”
And while the good news is that bills that could resolve the $1 billion fiscal cliff are moving, Rep. Neil Abramson, D-New Orleans, the House Ways and Means chairman, said he still has not yet seen lawmakers wholly agreeing.
Rep. Pat Smith, D-Baton Rouge, said passing the tax bills from the committee was “just to get things on the floor.” But, she said, “nothing has settled as to what is going to happen.”