Final decisions on budget awaited on last day of session

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BATON ROUGE, As the final hours of the legislative session ticked away, lawmakers Thursday began approving the pieces of a final deal on next year’s $24 billion budget and the tax plans that will finance it. But it remained unclear if they could strike a tax agreement that would escape Gov. Bobby Jindal’s veto.

Work in the 60-day regular legislative session must end by 6 p.m.

“We have done incredible work. We have carried the ball almost to the goal line,” House Speaker Chuck Kleckley, R-Lake Charles, told lawmakers as the House opened its workday after late-night and early-morning negotiating sessions behind closed doors.

He urged them: “Let’s get the ball across the goal line. Let’s not fumble it.”

To make a workable budget, House and Senate leaders were taking a series of final votes on a package of proposals that raise taxes, shrink tax breaks and scale back business subsidies, as a way to drum up hundreds of millions of dollars for the budget. They’ll also have to vote on a final version of the spending plans for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

Jindal made rare appearances in both the House and Senate amid the ongoing negotiations.

The House and Senate solved disputes on the tobacco tax, agreeing to a 50-cent tax hike that will boost the per-pack tax rate to 86 cents and to charge a new tax on electronic cigarettes and vapor productions. Questions remained about how much lawmakers will scale back the state film tax credit and whether the House has enough votes to pass a $50 fee increase on car buyers that would raise $60 million annually.

But lawmakers said they were confident they could work those details out.

“I think what you see is an understanding that the operations side of government must, must continue and that higher education and health care must be protected,” said Sen. Sherri Buffington, R-Keithville.

Lawmakers opened the session in April, grappling with a $1.6 billion budget shortfall.

“This is probably one of the toughest legislative sessions that anybody in this building has faced in many, many years, in decades,” Kleckley said.

The problem was largely of their own making. Jindal and lawmakers balanced this year’s budget with $1.2 billion in patchwork financing from property sales, legal settlements and other one-time sources of cash. The dollars aren’t expected to reappear next year, creating most of the shortfall they have struggled to fill.

And in many ways, the proposed budget deal would be another short-term fix. Legislative leaders are suggesting a three-year expiration date for many tax bills.

“It was decided it was best to limit the revenue measures to a three-year period and then allow the Legislature at that time to decide if the revenue’s still needed,” said House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Joel Robideaux, R-Lafayette.

One of the main sticking points remained whether to meet Jindal’s parameters on taxes. If lawmakers don’t, they risk a veto of some tax bills that would pay for as much as $370 million of the spending plans contained in the budget. Without those dollars, public colleges and health care services face steep slashing.

Jindal, who is expected to announce his presidential campaign in two weeks, is threatening to veto bills he considers a net tax increase unless lawmakers find a way to offset them with what he considers a tax cut. He’s closely guarded his record on a no-tax pledge he signed with an organization led by national anti-tax activist Grover Norquist.

The Senate has agreed to create a tax credit — on paper — that would satisfy Jindal’s terms in a bill by Sen. Jack Donahue, R-Mandeville. It wouldn’t raise new money or cut anyone’s taxes, but it would be used for Jindal to claim an offset against other tax hikes used to balance the budget.

So far, House members have balked, and they were still resistant to the idea Thursday. They have called that idea a deception to the public, designed solely to benefit the Republican governor’s White House ambitions.

“We’re still working with House members on the concept of Sen. Donahue’s bill and the devastating impact to higher education should it fail,” said Rep. Chris Broadwater, R-Hammond, who has participated in the budget negotiations.

If the governor gets his wish on a budget deal, it will be a rare victory this session. Lawmakers rejected two centerpieces of Jindal’s agenda: a push to give special protections in state law to people who oppose same-sex marriage and his effort to strip the Common Core education standards from Louisiana’s public school classrooms.

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