By Paul Braun, Tryfon Boukouvidis and Drew White, LSU Manship School News Service
BATON ROUGE — The Legislature passed a budget late Monday with deep cuts to TOPS and higher education minutes before the tense end of a special session, and House Republicans rejected attempts to raise revenue to soften the cuts.
The final budget bill would slash funding for TOPS scholarships by 30 percent, cut spending on public universities by $96 million and impose across-the-board cuts on other state agencies.
Gov. John Bel Edwards said he would consider vetoing the bill. He blamed some of the House Republicans, referring to them as “that extreme caucus of no standing in the way of the state of Louisiana.” He added that he would call legislators back later this month for a third special session to try again to raise more revenue.
Democrats in both chambers and some Republicans were shocked and angry when Rep. Alan Seabaugh, R-Shreveport, seized the microphone at 11:59 p.m. to prevent a second vote on a bill that would have raised $540 million to avert most of the cuts.
The bill, which had passed the Senate 32-6, would have extended a half of a penny of an expiring sales tax to ease a projected $648 million budget gap that will hit when temporary taxes expire on July 1.
Seventeen of the 23 Republicans in the Senate had voted for that bill. But Republican leaders in the House had opposed extending more than one-third of a cent of the sales tax. Seabaugh was one of a number of Republicans who voted in both special sessions against extending any portion of the sales tax.
The climax occurred when Seabaugh rose to speak and would not move aside after Rep. Julie Stokes, R-Kenner, had asked the House to reconsider the bill to raise the $540 million.
“It’s on you,” Stokes told Seabaugh when the Speaker announced that the clock had hit midnight, bringing an end to the session.
“Yes, I’m trying to run the clock out,” Seabaugh said, “because we’ve voted on this bill before, and it didn’t get 70 votes,” said Seabaugh. “The body has spoken,” he added.
The bill had been presented to the House by Rep. Walt Leger, D-New Orleans, and the governor’s floor leader, and it had gotten 64 votes, six less than the two-thirds needed for passage, 25 minutes earlier.
Edwards called what happened in the final minutes in the House “a damn crying shame.”
He also faulted the speaker of the House, Taylor Barras, R- New Iberia, for what he called a “total collapse of leadership.”
“The Speaker of the House voted against the bill that 64 members of the body voted to pass and refused to let it come back up, forcing us into another special session,” Edwards said.
“Our state deserves better than what we’ve seen tonight by a minority in the House,” he added.
Leger said his bill would have fully funded TOPS, higher education, the Department of Health, sheriffs and district attorneys.
Sen. Karen Carter Peterson also lashed out at the Republicans after the session ended, saying, “We all have to own up for what a few people in the House of Representatives did because they’re selfish.”
She added that what Seabaugh did at the end “was really disrespectful to the people of Louisiana.” She also said he should apologize.
In the last half hour, the House also rejected 66-38 a bill by Rep. Lance Harris, R-Alexandria, and the leader of the Legislature’s Republican delegation, to extend a third of a cent of the sales tax. All 41 of the House Democrats, who preferred Leger’s bill, voted against Harris’ bill.
Rep. Jay Morris, R-Monroe, criticized the Democrats on Twitter early Tuesday for voting down the $400 million in revenue that they could have had “in the hand” from Harris’ and another bill for a second chance to pass the more than $500 million proposed by Leger.
“One bird in the hand is almost always better than 2 in the bush,” Morris wrote.
Morris also tweeted that even though Harris had warned Gov. Edwards Monday morning that the House Republicans would not vote to extend more than 1/3 of a cent of sales tax, Senate Democrats bottled up a conference committee report on Harris’s bill at 5 p.m., refusing to sign it until after Leger’s half-cent bill failed in the House around 11:30 p.m.
Stokes acknowledged that most House Republicans voted against Leger’s revenue bill when it was first considered Monday night.
“There were a number of us that wanted to follow our party and do the right thing,” she said. “We wanted a mix of cuts and revenue to move our state forward.”
But once Harris’ bill failed, “there was one viable option left,” she said, referring to Leger’s bill. “And they filibustered and prevented a vote on it.”
“So disgusting,” Stokes added.
The final hour of the session started with reconsideration of a measure by Rep. Katrina Jackson, D-Monroe, that raised $33.6 million in revenue by eliminating deductions for income taxes paid in other states.
But the bill also included an expansion of the earned income tax credit for the working poor that cost the state $21 million. That part of the bill was championed by the Louisiana Legislative Black Caucus as a way to mitigate the impact of the possible extension of part of the sales tax, which is generally considered a regressive tax.
The bill had been amended in conference to delay the effective date and the cost of the earned income tax credit by a year and eliminate the credit in 2025.
The House voted 56-48 at 11:04 p.m., and the Senate delivered its concurrence to the House two minutes later, finalizing what would be the only measure to have a net revenue gain passed this session.
The House convened shortly after 9 a.m. Monday but did not send the budget bill to a conference committee with the Senate until early afternoon or vote to send Jackson’s bill to conference until 9 p.m.
Rep. Ted James, D-Baton Rouge, later criticized Barras, the House speaker, and other Republican leaders for “slow-walking all day” to make it harder to finalize some of the bills.
“This is what happens when folks want control of the body, but don’t know how to lead it,” he said.
Seabaugh’s last-minute remarks to delay a vote over a bill were met with boos from fellow House members and shouting as the final seconds ticked off the clock.
Seabaugh, an attorney from Shreveport, was under consideration by President Donald Trump for a federal judgeship. The nomination went to David C. Joseph early in April.
Seabaugh won his seat in the House during a special election in 2010 and has been re-elected twice since.
He questioned the urgency of a special session earlier this year, disputing state projections regarding the budget shortfall.