Louisiana lawmakers reject sales tax bill again, spiraling special session near fruitless end

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Following weeks of debate and still no consensus, leaders in the Louisiana Legislature are debating whether to adjourn their special session without a clear plan to offset $994 million of sales tax revenue that expires July 1.

For the second time in less than a week, state House members struck down a bill to renew a quarter-penny of the expiring dollars through 2021. A total of 33 representatives supported the measure, by Rep. Stephen Dwight (R-Lake Charles), which would have closed $290 million of the state’s budget gap next year. At least 70 votes were needed for passage. (The chamber previously rejected Dwight’s bill Wednesday in a 38-67 vote.)

Lawmakers, namely those in the House’s Republican majority, have considered the passage of Dwight’s bill a must in order to fund state health and higher education programs past June. The week-long stalemate over the proposal led some House members to consider proposing “sine die” — or ending the session outright, without any solution in place.

“Not an appropriate motion at this time,” House Speaker Taylor Barras said, following a motion by Rep. Barry Ivey (R-Central).

Barras instead approved a motion to delay negotiations to 4 p.m. Monday, upon which lawmakers can once again reconsider the legislation. But whether the chamber actually meets as scheduled remains unknown. The speaker and Senate President John Alario could decide to stop the session, if they don’t believe revenue bills can pass the House and Senate by Wednesday, when the 17-day session must end.

“I do think it’s important that we don’t spend two weeks here doing nothing,” said Rep. Frank Hoffmann (R-West Monroe).

Opposition to the legislation has come from two fronts: Republicans who would rather shore up the so-called “fiscal cliff” only through spending cuts, and Democrats who say the sales tax hurts lower-income Louisianians hardest.

A coalition of Democrats voted against the sales tax bill fearing the Republican-led House would reject their proposed changes to income taxes. Legislation from House Speaker Pro Tempore Walt Leger (D-New Orleans) would cut a state tax break for higher earners who itemize deductions on their federal returns. (The bill initially failed in a 50-51 vote Friday and was scheduled for a second debate Sunday before the sudden adjournment.)

The income tax measure had support from Governor John Bel Edwards, who called the special session last month on the condition that legislators had the votes needed to pass revenue measures before the regular session March 12.

“[I’m] extremely disappointed that the House has given up any effort to solve the fiscal cliff,” the governor wrote Sunday night on Twitter, noting the Legislature’s two-year drought on passing tax bills. “We held up our end of the bargain, and after two years, the House leadership went back on their word.”

Barras fired back at Edwards late Sunday, blaming the session’s ill fate on miscommunication within the Democratic ranks. The House speaker said while some Republicans were willing to push Leger’s income tax bill past the 53-vote threshold Friday, four Democrats with the Legislative Black Caucus ultimately voted against the legislation.

”In what appeared to be a total disconnect between House Democrats, the House black caucus and the governor, repeated attempts by House Democrats to block revenue measures deteriorated any chances of reaching a solution,” Barras said. “[B]eing unable to garner the support of his House Democrats contributed to the collapse of this session.”

The timeline under which state lawmakers can address revenue is tightening. State law bars legislators from considering tax bills in the regular session from March 12 to June 4.

If lawmakers choose to end the special session without any tax measures passed, they would only have a few weeks in June to debate such measures before the next fiscal year begins. Such a delay could leave college students, hospital patients and state workers with only a few days notice regarding whether their services will survive the cliff.

”The uncertainty [House Republican leaders] are imposing on our state will have a direct impact on our economy,” Edwards said. “A vast majority in the House wanted to solve this problem, but were not given the chance.”

A special session in Louisiana — including this ongoing one, which began Feb. 19 — costs the state between $50,000 and $60,000 each day.

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