By Matt Houston and Katie Gagliano, LSU Manship School News Service
BATON ROUGE — House leadership bickered Monday over who is to blame for a new stall in budget negotiations instead of voting on several key bills that could raise revenue and solve the state’s looming budget crisis.
The legislative calendar was shelved until Wednesday morning after the Legislative Black Caucus sought to resurrect legislation that would compress personal income tax brackets and raise taxes on the middle and upper class. Speaker Taylor Barras, R-New Iberia, addressed members from the floor and said he was taken aback by the sudden request and had believed that proposal was off the table.
“This is the dialogue and continued communication that we need,” he said. “What I’m concerned about is that this is the first we’re hearing of it.” Barras said he had spent a lot of time with Gov. John Bel Edwards trying to negotiate a deal, and “this is not one of the options we’d been continually talking about.”
Rep. Marcus Hunter, D-Monroe, and other members of the Black Caucus felt singled out by Barras’ comments and said it was a “faux pas” on his part to assume discussion about the tax brackets was off the table.
“What we want is permanence, and I think that’s what the tax reform committee wants, the Republicans want, and what Democrats want,” Hunter said. “To typecast it just as a Black Caucus issue and to politely throw us under the bus is a principle not uncommon here in the Capitol.”
Barras told reporters later that he never intended to insult the Black Caucus and his comments were “thanking them for coming to the table with a new proposal.” He said he “certainly didn’t discourage them and certainly didn’t turn them away,” instead attempting to provide more opportunity for negotiation on their request.
What compromise can be reached is uncertain. Rep. Lance Harris, R-Alexandria, the chairman of the Republican Caucus, said support for the tax bracket compression is relatively non-existent among his party and is likely a non-starter.
“No, there are not 70 votes for that and there’s no way that’s coming out of committee, as far as I know. We just don’t have the votes in that committee, and I’m not going to ask someone that’s adamantly opposed to that to vote for it,” Harris said.
This disagreement comes the morning after the House Ways and Means Committee approved a compromise that traded the extension of a quarter of a penny of state sales tax until 2021 for a heavily amended bill that would limit exemptions for excess itemized deductions.
Three of the four Black Caucus members on the committee, including caucus chair Rep. Joseph Bouie, D-New Orleans, voted for the amended version of the compromise on sales tax. Rep. Ted James, D-Baton Rouge, was the only member to vote against the amended bill’s movement.
All of the caucus members on the committee voted against an amendment added to House Bill 23 by Stephen Dwight, R-Lake Charles, that created a 2021 expiration date for the sales tax extension, creating another fiscal cliff three years from now.
Democrats have long raised concerns about approving more temporary tax fixes and building a solution on the backs of the poor and working poor without passing more comprehensive tax changes. But none of the Black Caucus members said during Sunday’s Ways and Means meeting that they would propose further changes to the deal on Monday.
Gov. John Bel Edwards called approving another temporary fix “the definition of insanity” and said legislators “absolutely cannot be counted on to come back and fix things just because they’ve put a short-term sunset date on the revenue” because that’s the situation the state is facing now.
Barras told House members that Governor John Bel Edwards has not been clear enough about which solutions he would like to see the Legislature debate in an effort to prevent cuts when nearly $1 billion of temporary taxes expire this summer.
Edwards’ spokesman Richard Carbo said on Twitter on Monday that Barras “hasn’t returned calls or messages from the governor.”
The Legislative Black Caucus released a statement after the House adjourned saying that it is dissatisfied with the current solutions because they do not offer the legislature a chance to address legitimate tax reform, only “more regressive taxes on the middle class and underserved.”
“The Louisiana Legislative Black Caucus looks forward to working with the Governor and [the legislature] on an expanded call for the next special session to properly address the concerns of the state.”
If the legislature does not address the budget problems by March 7, Edwards could call another special session in June, and the Legislature could consider some of the reforms desired by the caucus. Its members generally voted in favor of Edwards’ unsuccessful 2017 plan to broaden the tax base by eliminating certain exemptions and deductions, but lower tax rates in return.
Rep. Nancy Landry, R-Lafayette, tweeted on Monday that the caucus “issued an ultimatum to increase income tax by compressing tax brackets or they won’t vote for any bill. In other words, they are blowing everything up.”
James, in response, admonished some legislators for blaming the stalemate on the Black Caucus, saying some of those same legislators voted for legislation under former Gov. Jindal’s administration that he says created the state’s current budget problems.
“With this body, we have a leadership issue,” James said. “Until we address that, we’ll continue to have problems.”
Tryfon Boukouvidis contributed to this report.