Looming $1 billion-plus state budget gap to be focus of talks
More than three-quarters of Louisiana House lawmakers are expected to attend a closed-door retreat Thursday to hash out ideas for eliminating a looming $1 billion-plus state budget gap. The bipartisan meeting will be held at a Baton Rouge catering hall, with the leaders of the Republican and Democratic delegations who organized the event hoping legislators can start building a consensus on addressing Louisiana’s financial problems. “This is for educational purposes and to get us in the room and have a little fellowship,” Alexandria Rep. Lance Harris, head of the House GOP delegation, said Wednesday. The lawmakers will get presentations from House financial analysts and the Legislature’s chief economist about Louisiana’s budget history, income streams and tax structure. After that, “we’ll just have an open discussion and see what bubbles up,” Harris said. Minden Rep.
Gene Reynolds, leader of the House Democrats, said he hopes legislators will come up with two or three scenarios for addressing the gap and “let that simmer for a while” as negotiations continue. “We just need to talk. That’s what this is all about,” Reynolds said.
“It’s what they should be doing in Washington.” He said 79 of the chamber’s 103 members indicated they plan to attend. The $1 billion-plus shortfall hits July 1, when temporary taxes passed by lawmakers — mainly sales taxes — expire with the start of the 2018-19 budget year. Previous proposals from Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards to rewrite tax laws to close the gap have gone nowhere in the majority-Republican House, and House GOP efforts to shrink state spending also failed. Any tax plans will require a special legislative session to consider. Edwards said he wants to hold such a session early next year, before the regular session in which the upcoming budget will be built. But the governor said he won’t call a special session unless he can reach agreement with House GOP leaders on what they would be willing to support. Rep. Ted James, a Baton Rouge Democrat, intends to be at the retreat — but with low expectations. He said House members know the tax options, but Republicans have repeatedly refused them over two years of legislative sessions. “It sounds really good, but based on the last two years, my expectations are slim,” James said. “I hate to be a pessimist, and I would love to be proved wrong. But I would bet the entire deficit that we’re not going to do anything different.”
Harris responded: “It saddens me that he has that attitude.” To hold the private retreat with a majority of the House members, lawmakers are relying on a public meeting exemption that allows for “gatherings at which only presentations are made to members of the legislature or members of either house” to be closed to the public “if no vote or other action, including formal or informal polling of members, is taken.” “They cannot do anything in any form or fashion that can be interpreted as a commitment to specific ideas,” said House Clerk Alfred “Butch” Speer. Harris and Reynolds said they don’t intend to take any sort of votes at Thursday’s retreat. The meeting is closed, Harris said, “to avoid distractions.” The retreat is the latest among many closed-door sessions that the governor and lawmakers have had about the financial woes.