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Tax, budget deals yet to be struck

by Minden Press-Herald

BATON ROUGE — A special legislative session on taxes neared its Thursday end with the House and Senate at odds over the tax changes they would support to lessen cuts in next year’s budget and how to spend the $258 million already raised.

Behind the scenes, Gov. John Bel Edwards and Senate President John Alario were trying to persuade lawmakers, particularly House Republican leaders, to agree to more tax changes, to further boost revenue in the financial year that begins July 1.

“A lot of moving parts,” Alario, R-Westwego, said Wednesday. “We want to make sure that the House would be comfortable with what we’re doing. It’s close.”

The effort appeared to be a long-shot. House Speaker Taylor Barras remained opposed to the proposal and said he didn’t expect a majority of his members to agree to the income tax changes sought.

“I think most of our no votes are remaining as no votes,” said Barras, R-New Iberia. “If someone has changed their mind, they have not told me.”

Lawmakers have been grappling with budget woes for 19 weeks across three legislative sessions. They raised $1.2 billion in taxes for next year’s budget earlier this year and have boosted that total further in the most recent session.

But government programs and services still face cuts in the $26 billion budget that begins next month.

“There’s nobody coming out of this happy,” said Sen. Mack “Bodi” White, R-Baton Rouge. “We’re doing the best that we can.”

Senators on Wednesday unveiled their approach for spending the $258 million both the House and Senate have supported in tax changes.

The Senate Finance Committee prioritized college campuses, health services and corrections programs over K-12 public schools in its reshuffling of the House version of the budget bill.

Senators said they were concerned about the threat of cuts to local public school systems, but noted public college systems have taken repeated hits in recent budget years while K-12 education spending grew.

“Higher education in this state has been cut tremendously, 15 times. We’re not competitive,” said Sen. Greg Tarver, D-Shreveport.

Public school districts would be in line to receive $38 million less in the upcoming budget year, while college campuses would remain at flat financing, under the proposal advanced to the full Senate for consideration.

The LSU medical schools, however, would take reductions. Students in the TOPS college program would get only 70 percent of their tuition costs covered, spread evenly over both semesters.

Sen. Regina Barrow, D-Baton Rouge, disapproved of the public schools cut.

“This is really going to have a devastating, chilling effect across the state,” she said.

Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne, said if no additional money was raised by lawmakers, the governor wants a more even split of cuts between colleges and K-12 schools.

In its proposal, the House allocated $21 million more for K-12 public education. But Senate leaders say the House version contained $26 million more than Louisiana has available, double-counting savings from the state’s Medicaid expansion that had already been included in the budget. Senators cut that amount. House leaders don’t believe the money was double-counted.

Angela Lorio, who relies on a Medicaid “waiver” program to help her disabled 3-year-old son, lamented the budget decisions lawmakers were making.

“TOPS moms have been pitted against waiver moms. It is horrific, this atmosphere,” she said.

Only one large tax proposal remained in play, to reduce personal income tax deductions for people who itemize on their state forms, to raise $88 million next year. The House rejected the proposal earlier in the week. Alario was trying to revive it.

But the Senate president said he wouldn’t seek a Senate vote on the tax measure unless he thought it could win final passage in both chambers.

“I’m not going to ask my members to bleed on something that’s not going to pass the House of Representatives,” Alario said.

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