Last ditch effort

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Louisiana’s lawmakers won’t quit on tax compromise just yet

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — The Louisiana House isn’t giving up yet on reaching a tax agreement to help close a nearly $1 billion budget gap.

A day after lawmakers rejected a major sales tax bill, negotiations in the special session moved from the House floor to desks and side rooms. The House didn’t vote on any proposals Thursday, delaying all consideration of tax measures until Friday.

House Speaker Taylor Barras told lawmakers that he believes “there is some room” for talks to continue. Others appeared skeptical. Barras said Friday’s votes will be the “do or die” decisions on tax measures.

“Time is of the essence for us now, and I would like to complete that calendar (Friday) for everybody’s benefit,” he said.

It remains unclear if the fractious House can bridge the divide on what tax types — and what amount of money — should replace the expiring temporary taxes that are causing the $994 million budget hole on July 1.

“I’m pleased that we have made some progress,” Barras said.

House Republican leaders favor sales taxes, while Democrats, particularly the Black Caucus, prefer income taxes.

Wednesday’s debate on a sales tax bill devolved into angry and frustrated speeches from lawmakers who disagree over the tax approach. The exchanges were so acrimonious that House members openly talked of ending the special session early, with no tax agreement.

“We don’t need to quit,” said Sen. Francis Thompson, a Delhi Democrat.

Senate President John Alario, a Republican known for his calm demeanor, said he believed House members could move past the tension: “Every day is new in this business.”

The sales tax measure would temporarily renew one quarter of an expiring 1 percent sales tax and temporarily eliminate some sales tax breaks, to raise nearly $300 million annually. Louisiana’s current state sales tax rate is 5 percent. It drops to 4 percent on July 1. The bill by Rep. Stephen Dwight, a Lake Charles Republican, would move the rate to 4.25 percent. But 0.25 percent of the tax would again be temporary, with an expiration date in mid-2021.

Only 38 of 105 House members voted for the measure. It needed 70 votes to pass.
But Barras said the bill remains “core to this debate.”

Democrats in the House also want a vote on a proposal to lessen the itemized deductions allowed for middle- and upper-income taxpayers.

Gov. John Bel Edwards called the special session, asking lawmakers to pass replacement taxes, saying without them, the TOPS free college tuition program, health care services and public safety programs would face deep cuts. The special session must end by March 7.

“The clock’s running on us. The clock’s not our friend,” Alario said.

Part of the $994 million shortfall will be offset with $302 million estimated from increased state income-tax collections caused by the federal tax changes. Alario said he’d like to see the House send over enough tax legislation to fill the remaining $692 million gap.

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