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House comes close, but no deal Friday

by Minden Press-Herald

By Katie Gagliano and Sarah Gamard

BATON ROUGE– The House voted 51-50 on Friday against a Democratic bill to reduce income tax deductions and then adjourned after nearly five hours of behind-the-scenes talks failed to bring members closer to resolving a $1 billion budget shortfall.

The Legislature will reconvene Sunday evening, one of the last days left to salvage the special session. If bills to replace revenue from an expiring penny of sales tax do not advance to the Senate by Monday, it is unlikely they would have enough time to pass through the full legislative process.

“This is irresponsible, immature, and ridiculous,” Rep. Julie Stokes, R-Kenner, told the Manship School News Service as chamber inaction devolved into confusion for a third time during the long break on Friday.

The tensions in the House also revealed that some members of the Legislative Black Caucus believed Gov. John Bel Edwards had taken their support for granted in negotiations over possible tax changes.

Four Democrats in the Black Caucus voted against the income-tax deduction bill, which needed 53 votes to pass. Democrats said the governor might have persuaded some of them late Friday to vote for the bill when it comes up again on Sunday.

Rep. Walt Leger, D-New Orleans, one of the governor’s floor leaders, sponsored the bill, which would limit state deductions for income taxes and sales taxes paid the previous year.

Leger said the bill, which would raise $79 million in the next fiscal year, was a “linchpin to agreement” between Democrats and Republican leaders, who need support from some Democrats to extend a quarter penny of the expiring sales tax. That measure also would reduce exemptions to the sales tax and raise $300 million next year.

The four Black Caucus members who voted against the bill were Reps. Cedric Glover, D-Shreveport, Denise Marcelle, D-Baton Rouge, Gary Carter, D-New Orleans, and Jimmy Harris, D-New Orleans.

Some said they would have supported the bill if it did not include an amendment that tied it to the passage of GOP proposals to encourage Medicaid recipients to work and require their income tax records be examined to prevent fraud. Those bills passed the House earlier that day.

The four Caucus members voted against the Leger bill even after Rep. Ted James, D-Baton Rouge, implored them to see past the amendments they were against for what he said would be passing a greater good.

“Overlook it, because those words are not strong enough to overcome what I know is right,” James said.

Twenty Black Caucus members voted for the bill, and Richard Carbo, the governor’s deputy chief of staff, insisted that Edwards had consulted with members of the caucus in making plans for the session.

“He knows there are a lot of tough choices that have to be made to reach a compromise to try to build consensus,” Carbo said.

Late Friday, the Republicans also wanted more time to see if they could scrounge up votes for a bill, sponsored by Stephen Dwight, R-Lake Charles, to extend the quarter penny of sales tax. Dwight said he was holding his bill for Sunday because he did not have the 70 votes, or two-thirds of the chamber, needed to pass it.

Some officials said Tony Bacala, R-Prairieville, had offered to decouple his Medicaid eligibility bill from Leger’s billon Sunday if that would help break the logjam.

The bills would need to move to the Senate floor and back to the House where they could be finally passed or sent to a conference committee to hash out a compromise. Given the pace of negotiations in the first ten days of the session, legislators would probably be working against a midnight deadline next Wednesday when the session expires.

Legislators and administration officials have said that there is likely to be an attempt in the Senate to increase the portion of the sales tax that is extended to one-half of a cent from the one-quarter of a cent that the House is debating. That would raise an additional $220 million in revenue, but could set off another battle.

During the debate on Leger’s bill, lawmakers from both sides of the aisle passionately implored their colleagues to advance the bill to the Senate ahead of the close vote. “Life isn’t made of an infinite number of moments to waste on stuff like this,” Stokes said, referencing her recent battle with breast cancer.

Rep. Alan Seabaugh, R-Shreveport, who opposed Leger’s bill, also thought the chamber was wasting time, but for different reasons. “I don’t think we need to be here right now,” he said. “What’s the urgency?”

Seabaugh called Leger’s bill a “$79 million tax increase” and said the governor told a “bald-faced lie” when he called on legislators to shore up the $994 million fiscal cliff created by expiring sales taxes in his session-opening speech. The governor called Seabaugh to his office on the fourth floor of the State Capitol after Seabaugh’s speech, but Seabaugh never went.

Matt Houston contributed to this story.

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