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All eyes on Baton Rouge

by Associated Press

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Louisiana lawmakers open their latest special session Monday still struggling to agree on an approach to stabilizing state finances a decade into seesawing cycles of budget gaps and short-term fixes.

The House and Senate are trudging back to Baton Rouge for their fifth special session called by Gov. John Bel Edwards to address budget uncertainty in two years. The session begins at 4 p.m., with a speech from Edwards an hour later.

The Republican-led Legislature and the Democratic governor are staring down a $1 billion budget hole that hits July 1, caused by the looming expiration of temporary taxes passed by lawmakers in 2016.

Edwards wants the expiring taxes replaced with other taxes, saying without the revenue, Louisiana will be forced to make damaging cuts to education, health care and public safety programs. He proposes raising or maintaining higher taxes on businesses and middle- and upper-income earners, largely ideas from a task force of experts that studied state tax laws.

“This special session will give us the opportunity to make reforms that we all know are needed in Louisiana to stabilize our budget and tax code, making it more predictable and fair,” the governor said in a statement.

It’s unclear if he can reach a deal with enough GOP lawmakers for taxes to pass, particularly in the conservative House, where most tax bills must start and where Republicans have blocked previous Edwards tax proposals. Many tax measures require a hefty two-thirds vote.

No lawmaker has offered a proposal to cut $1 billion in state spending.

“Nobody can credibly cut a billion dollars. That’s not feasible to do that,” said Rep. Tanner Magee, a Houma Republican who said he’ll support some replacement taxes.

Republican House Speaker Taylor Barras said he believes the solution will be a mix of taxes and cuts.

But many Republicans who say they’ll consider taxes want that coupled with legislation they say will curb long-term growth in government, such as proposals to tighten Louisiana’s spending cap and add new cost-share and work requirements for some Medicaid patients.

“I want to see what kind of budget reform passes out before I consider any revenue,” said Rep. Mike Huval, a Breaux Bridge Republican.

Few lawmakers have spelled out what taxes they will support, and Republicans and Democrats diverge on tax types.

Rep. Jim Morris, a Republican from Oil City, said partial renewal of the expiring 1 percent sales tax might be more palatable in his district than income tax changes — but he’s not sure if he’ll back any of it.

“I’m going to listen. I’m going to be open-minded. But I’m not going to pass taxes without a lot of scrutiny and clarification as to where it will go,” Morris said.

Sen. J.P. Morrell, the New Orleans Democrat who chairs the Senate tax committee, said renewal of all or part of the expiring sales tax by itself “is a non-starter.” He said it would have to be part of a “larger compromise of making the budget solvent over an extended period of time.”

“We’re going to have to have more than a sales tax on the table,” Morrell said.

Democrats, including Edwards, resist the sales tax renewal because they say it disproportionately hits the poor and has boosted Louisiana’s average sales tax rate to the highest in the nation.

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