By MELINDA DESLATTE, Associated Press
BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — A bipartisan group of Louisiana’s state senators urged Gov. John Bel Edwards to call a special session this month to replace expiring taxes, even if he can’t strike a pre-session deal with House Republicans.
Fourteen of 39 senators — including Senate President John Alario, a Republican, and Finance Committee Chairman Eric LaFleur, a Democrat — sent a letter saying a February special session is needed to balance next year’s budget without damaging programs.
“It’s time for us to be a little more proactive,” said Sen. Rick Ward, the Port Allen Republican who spearheaded the letter signed by 11 Republicans and three Democrats.
About $1 billion in temporary taxes expire July 1. If lawmakers want to replace any of the expiring revenue with taxes, that requires a special session, either before the regular session starts March 12 or after it ends June 4. Otherwise, they’ll have to slash spending, cuts expected to fall most heavily on health services and college programs. No lawmaker has offered a proposal for how to close the gap entirely with cuts.
Delaying until June will sow uncertainty, the letter says.
“There is not a single option that will be available in June that is not available to the legislature now. The state gains nothing and only loses by waiting,” the letter says. “Waiting until June or later to solve the budget shortfall will unduly burden and cause irreparable harm to our universities and hospitals, and further harm the constituents served by them.”
Edwards wants a special session this month. But the Democratic governor has said he doesn’t want to summon lawmakers to Baton Rouge unless he has agreement with House Republican leaders who blocked his previous tax proposals.
“Gov. Edwards can’t negotiate with himself, and it’s critically important for the House to come to the table with ideas,” Edwards’ spokesman Richard Carbo said in a statement.
Ward said it will be easier to reach consensus if all 144 lawmakers are together in session, rather than negotiating by phone and in small groups.
“The best way forward is with us in Baton Rouge, everybody under one roof,” Ward said.
But Ward’s letter seems to suggest disagreement in his own chamber, lacking a majority of senators to push Edwards for the session. Sen. Troy Carter, chairman of the Senate Democratic Caucus, sent his own letter calling it “prudent” to have a special session soon.
Both Republican House Speaker Taylor Barras and Rep. Lance Harris, chairman of the House GOP delegation, have said they support holding a February special session to address the budget gap. But while the Legislature can call itself into session, legislative leaders appear to be waiting for Edwards to make that decision.
The senators’ letter asks the governor to make the special session agenda as broad as possible, so a variety of ideas can be considered to balance the budget.
Barras said House Republicans won’t support taxes without passage of spending control legislation at the same time. The House GOP proposals would tighten limits on spending growth; create a new website to track spending; charge some Medicaid patients a cost-share for services; and require some adult Medicaid enrollees to work or lose their coverage.
While the ideas wouldn’t necessarily chip away at the size of the budget gap, Barras said they could lower the state’s costs in the long term. Edwards said he needs more information on the proposals and on what taxes lawmakers would support in exchange.