BATON ROUGE — In a chaotic flurry of last-minute votes, Louisiana lawmakers completed their work Thursday with a deal on next year’s $24 billion budget that will keep public colleges and health services from deep cuts — and that meets Gov. Bobby Jindal’s criteria to escape a veto.
The deal was struck and approved in the 60-day legislative session’s final hours, with the House and Senate agreeing to Jindal’s demand that they create a tax credit on paper to protect the Republican governor’s anti-tax record as he readies his likely presidential campaign.
Support of the tax-credit maneuver, in a 30-9 Senate vote and a 59-43 House vote, ended one of the main sticking points in negotiations and paved the way for passage of the budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1 and the tax plans that will finance it.
Shortly after the session ended, Jindal declared victory for his last legislative session as governor, though lawmakers took their own approach on how to balance the budget, mocked the financing maneuvers required by the governor and rejected two of the main planks of his legislative agenda.
“From our perspective, it was a good session,” the governor said.
After starting the session in April with a $1.6 billion budget gap and the threat of more than 80 percent state-financing cuts across college campuses, the final budget cobbled together avoided the dire scenarios.
“This is probably one of the toughest legislative sessions that anybody in this building has faced in many, many years — in decades,” House Speaker Chuck Kleckley, R-Lake Charles, told lawmakers. He added: “We have done incredible work.”
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 weren’t expected to reappear next year, creating most of the shortfall they struggled to fill.
Lawmakers agreed to raise taxes, shrink tax breaks and scale back business subsidies to drum up about $700 million for the budget. They added millions more with fee hikes on a wide array of services.
On the final day, the House and Senate resolved 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 products. The House also agreed to a Senate-approved $50 fee increase on car buyers to raise $60 million annually.
Jindal said the budget deal struck met his parameters: “This is a solid budget.”
Expected to announce his presidential campaign in two weeks, Jindal threatened to veto $370 million in tax increases, unless lawmakers agreed to offset them with what he considers a tax cut. He has closely guarded his record on a no-tax pledge he signed with an organization led by national anti-tax activist Grover Norquist.
The close alliance with Norquist became a joke — and a point of anger — for lawmakers throughout the legislative session. By the final days, at least one lawmaker carried a stuffed animal of Grover, the Muppet, around on the House floor.
To satisfy Jindal’s terms, lawmakers agreed to create a tax credit — called SAVE — that doesn’t raise new money or cut anyone’s taxes, but can be used for Jindal to claim an offset against other tax hikes used to balance the budget.
Senators went along with the plan easily, but House members balked until Thursday, passing it less than two hours before the legislative session had to end.
Rep. Chris Broadwater, R-Hammond, urged his colleagues to vote for the tax-credit maneuver, saying it would spare higher education from steep reductions. But even Broadwater said he was embarrassed about the legislation.
“I will swallow my pride. I will choose to be embarrassed knowing that I stood and fought for higher education to the very end,” he said.
Critics called the SAVE tax credit a deception to the public, designed solely to benefit the governor’s White House ambitions.
“This scheme doesn’t raise a single red penny to what’s available to higher education, not one. It is a pure fiction. It is contrived. It is a gimmick,” said Rep. John Bel Edwards, leader of the House Democrats.
Jindal discarded the criticism that was levied even by lawmakers who voted for SAVE.
“I don’t take anything they say on the floor personally,” the governor said. “You’ve got to have thick skin in this building.”
Getting his wish on the budget deal was a rare victory for Jindal 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.