BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — After two years of inability to reach a permanent financing deal with the Republican-led Legislature, Gov. John Bel Edwards called on lawmakers Monday to pass long-term tax changes to close Louisiana’s latest budget gap and end a decade’s worth of financial uncertainty.
The Democratic governor spoke to a joint session of the House and Senate as they opened their latest special session, the fifth special session called by Edwards to address budget uncertainty since he took office in 2016. He said he was hopeful “this could be the last.”
“My number one goal is to put this problem behind us so we can get back to the business of making our state an even better place to live, to work, to retire or to pursue an education,” Edwards said. “But I need you to follow through with your end of the bargain and work with me.”
Lawmakers and the 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.
To make the threat of cuts more real, the governor brought guests to his speech who represent programs he said would be on the chopping block without replacement taxes, including a freshman at Southeastern Louisiana University who uses the TOPS college tuition program and a 10-year-old girl with disabilities whose family relies on a state health care program.
He focused little, however, in his speech Monday about his specific tax plans, saying he was willing to be “flexible” with lawmakers in developing a tax approach.
“I am imploring you — let’s turn this tide together,” Edwards said.
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.
“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,” said Rep. Jim Morris, a Republican from Oil City.
No lawmaker has offered a proposal to cut $1 billion in state spending. Edwards urged lawmakers who want spending cuts as the only solution to detail them, calling it disrespectful to Louisiana residents to suggest reductions without making “the tough and painful choices.”
Republican House Speaker Taylor Barras has said he believes the solution will be a mix of taxes and cuts.
“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.
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.
Even for lawmakers who agree to taxes, Republicans and Democrats diverge on tax types. For example, while some Republicans suggest partial renewal of the expiring 1 percent sales tax, Democrats are resistant to that idea, saying it disproportionately hits the poor.
Lawmakers begin tax bill hearings today.