BATON ROUGE— Gov. John Bel Edwards tried Wednesday to persuade Republican lawmakers to back additional taxes, seeking to break a logjam in the House that has bottled up many of his tax proposals for rebalancing Louisiana’s budget.
The Democratic governor met privately with GOP House and Senate members in the basement of the Louisiana Capitol, urging action as a special legislative session he called to stabilize state finances nears closer to its March 9 end.
“With a week to go, we’re still far short of where we need to be, and I encouraged them to pick up the pace and give serious consideration to some instruments on the revenue side,” Edwards said after the meeting.
He also met separately with Democratic lawmakers to shore up their support.
But still, the House continued to stall action on major tax bills sought by the governor.
Louisiana has about a $900 million shortfall that must be closed by June 30 and a more than $2 billion hole for next year’s budget.
Asked whether he was confident lawmakers would reach a deal to address both budget gaps with time running short, Edwards replied: “I’m obviously becoming increasingly concerned about that.”
Edwards and lawmakers closed part of this year’s shortfall with cuts and short-term fixes, but the majority Republican Legislature and the governor haven’t agreed on a final package of cuts and tax increases to rebalance the rest. Public colleges and health care services are threatened with steep reductions if lawmakers don’t raise revenue.
The governor’s focus Wednesday was mainly on House action. Republicans there have refused votes on many Edwards tax proposals, agreeing to a sales tax increase but not tax hikes on cigarettes, alcohol, business utilities or other ideas.
No promises were made.
“I think our delegation listened to what he had to say, and I think we’re going to do what we think’s best for the state and our districts,” said Rep. Jim Morris, R-Oil City, vice chairman of the House tax committee.
The House voted on one tax bill Wednesday, a measure that would decrease a tax credit for insurance companies. It wouldn’t raise any money for this year’s budget.
House Speaker Taylor Barras, R-New Iberia, said lawmakers in his chamber were waiting to see what cuts senators would support before taking more tax votes.
“We have raised upwards of $290 million (for this year’s budget). How much more than that do we need is what we’re trying to figure out,” he said.
The Senate’s proposed cuts were expected to be unveiled Thursday. But the Senate’s already given the House a target figure of how much money it wants.
Senate leaders say the House’s proposed cuts and taxes leave up to a $200 million gap in the budget. Senators, who are more open to tax increases, are constrained because most tax measures must start in the House.
Even House members have acknowledged some of their proposed cuts aren’t workable. A more than $50 million
reduction to the education department threatens to shutter the agency.
“That was not a serious proposal,” Edwards said.
He said if Republicans don’t agree to more taxes, they must offer a complete package of cuts.
“If they’re not prepared to do that, then they’re not being constructive,” the governor said.
A national credit rating agency downgraded Louisiana last week amid the continued budget uncertainty. Edwards said college accrediting agencies are raising concerns about cuts.
House Appropriations Chairman Cameron Henry, R-Metairie, said earlier this week Louisiana may need to deficit spend and roll part of the shortfall into next year. The suggestion drew rebuke from Senate President John Alario, R-Westwego.
“To purposely do that is to, I think, come very close to violating your oath of office because the constitution says you’re going to run a balanced budget,” Edwards said.