By Tryfon Boukouvidis, Paul Braun and Drew White, LSU Manship School News Service
BATON ROUGE – At the outset of the third special legislative session this year, Gov. John Bel Edwards chided a group of House Republicans Monday for having blocked efforts to raise revenue to avoid budget cuts and said this was the “last chance” to solve the problem.
“Over the past several months, partisan politics have infested this building in a way we have never seen before,” Edwards said in an address to the Legislature. He added that “the constant mix of partisan angling” was “simply inexcusable.”
Edwards, a Democrat, also took a shot at national conservative groups that have tried to rally Republicans to stop the Legislature from extending any portion of an extra penny of sales tax that expires on July 1.
He said he hoped more lawmakers would “turn a deaf ear to the out-of-state special interest groups who threaten to influence our discourse.”
Edwards spoke as behind-the-scenes efforts to find a compromise focused on the possibility of extending four-tenths of a cent of the expiring sales tax.
Some lobbyists said that House Republican leaders also are focusing on re-allocating $63 million that the Louisiana Department of Health acknowledged last month that it had not spent.
Some said that the House leaders might tell Edwards that they would be willing to add that $63 million into the revenue pot along with extending one-third or four-tenths of a cent of sales tax as an alternative to approving the half-cent extension that Edwards wants.
In the last special session, which ended June 4, Edwards, Democratic lawmakers and most Republicans in the Senate supported extending a half of a penny of sales tax, while House Republican leaders were only willing to keep one-third of a cent.
Both proposals failed in the dramatic final minutes of the session when Rep. Alan Seabaugh, R-Shreveport, one of about 20 Republicans who do not want to extend any of the sales tax, filibustered to prevent a final vote on a possible compromise.
The state’s portion of the sales tax is now 5 percent, so keeping one-half of a cent that was added in 2015 would reduce it to 4.5 cents while keeping only the third of a cent would make it 4.33 cents.
In the previous special session, lawmakers passed a $29 billion operating budget but failed to compromise over the amount they should extend the expiring 1 percent of the state sales tax, leaving the budget more than $500 million short of meeting the state’s needs.
That budget would cut TOPS scholarships by 30 percent, slash operating funds for higher education by over $90 million and impose large cuts on sheriff departments, district attorney offices, the National Guard, and other state agencies.
Jimmy Le Blanc, the corrections secretary, has said that his department might have to release as many as 10,000 non-violent offenders if it does not receive more money.
In his speech Monday, Edwards said that “the time for politics and partisanship is over” and urged lawmakers to compromise.
“We’ve been teetering on the brink of the fiscal cliff for too long, and the clock is winding down,” he said, adding that “this is our chance to hit the reset button.”
“Our constituents should not be used as political pawns because a handful of people have decided to play a game of partisan chess with our budgeting process,” he added.
Edwards said his proposal for extending a half cent of the sales tax, which also included $60 million in cuts that he would rather not make, had “something for everyone, but everything for no one.”
Edwards, the lone Democrat governor in the Deep South, will face re-election next year. Though a Republican competitor has yet to be announced, U.S. Sen. John Kennedy said he was “thinking seriously” of throwing his hat in the ring.
Some House Republicans disagree with the governor’s $648 million fiscal cliff, contending that the projection fails to account expected state economic growth and the rising price of oil by barrel.
So far, legislators have filed five sales tax bills for the new special session.
Rep. Terry Landry, D-New Iberia; Rep. Walt Leger, D-New Orleans; and Rep. Kenny Havard, R-St. Francisville, have filed nearly identical bills that would extend a half-penny of sales tax and keep more than 100 sales tax exemptions for individuals and businesses.
Business lobbyists have indicated that they could support a sales tax extension as long as their exemptions were maintained.
Each of the proposed bills would raise $510 million in the fiscal year that begins July 1 and $546 million a year from 2019 to 2025.
Rep. Stuart Bishop, R-Lafayette, filed a bill that would extend a half cent of sales tax until 2021 and then gradually reduce that portion until eliminating it entirely in 2025.
Rep. Neil Abramson, D-New Orleans, the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, filed a bill that did not specify what portion of the fifth penny of sales tax would be renewed. Lobbyists said that bill could be the vehicle to push for any compromise number.
Representatives also filed four supplementary budget bills that would outline how the state would appropriate funds if it raises some revenue, but not enough to fill the more than $500 million gap between state revenue and the budget passed last session and signed by Edwards.
Rep. Cameron Henry, R-Lake Charles and chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, filed a supplementary budget bill that would prioritize any additional funding to TOPS, Go Grants, higher education, nonpublic education assistance, district attorneys and supplemental pay for constables.
Rep. Patricia Smith, D-Baton Rouge, Rep. Franklin Foil, R-Baton Rouge, and Leger filed similar supplementary budget bills that would fund each department based on the percentage of the state budget it comprises.
All nine bills were referred to House committees and are scheduled for consideration Tuesday morning.