Budget deal undone in final hours of legislative session

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Louisiana lawmakers are squabbling over must-pass budget bills, with the House and Senate in sharp disagreement about how much money to spend and trying to broker a compromise before the legislative session ends Thursday.

Awaiting final passage are measures to pay for state government agencies, public services and colleges in the fiscal year that begins July 1, and to finance construction projects around Louisiana.

The two-month session must adjourn by 6 p.m. Gov. John Bel Edwards has called a precautionary special session to begin a half-hour later in case a budget agreement isn’t complete. Legislative leaders had said they didn’t expect the extra time would be needed, but with financial negotiations at an impasse, there were increased questions about that assumption.

“We’re trying to avoid that by all means,” Republican Senate President John Alario said of the special session.

Negotiations continued behind closed doors.

If they reach a budget agreement, that will be one of the only major accomplishments of the sluggish session. Lawmakers reached no deals on taxes and no agreement on how to solve a more than $1 billion financial gap that hits in mid-2018 when temporary taxes expire, setting up the inevitability of another special session sometime in the coming months.

“Enough has not been done to solve the fiscal cliff that is before us,” Alario said, describing disappointment.

Edwards saw only one major victory in the session: passage of a criminal justice revamp that backers said could move Louisiana out of its unenviable spot of having the nation’s highest incarceration rate. A package of bills lessen sentences for nonviolent crimes and bolster spending on programs aimed at helping people who leave prison so they don’t reoffend.

But the Democratic governor’s entire tax package — including a last-minute bid to create a new tax on businesses — was shelved.

In the final hours, the House and Senate haggled over finances, particularly the $28 billion-plus state operating budget. At issue was whether to trust the state income forecast and spend all the money available or leave some on the table as a cushion in case the forecast is too optimistic, as it has been every year for nearly a decade.

House Republican leaders want to spend less, saying that would keep them from having to make midyear budget cuts if the forecast isn’t met. The Senate, backed by Edwards and House Democrats, wants to spend all available dollars, saying otherwise they’d have to make unnecessary and harmful cuts to critical state services.

House GOP leaders proposed stripping out money senators wanted to spend on health services, public colleges, prisons, state police and the child welfare agency and eliminating a Senate-proposed pay raise for 38,000 state workers.

Appropriations Chairman Cameron Henry, a Metairie Republican, said it was unwise to “use 100 percent of a wrong number.”

Senators rejected the offer and countered by saying they liked their original plan.

“It leaves too many priorities not addressed,” said Senate Finance Chairman Eric LaFleur, a Ville Platte Democrat.

On the tax front, frustration could be found in both the House and Senate.

“It’s hard to watch Louisiana fall on its face, which is what I do believe we are seeing at the moment,” Rep. Julie Stokes, a Jefferson Parish Republican who unsuccessfully pushed structural tax changes, told lawmakers at a recent hearing.

Legislators spent months talking about how this legislative session would focus on a tax overhaul to stabilize Louisiana’s finances and end boom-and-bust budget cycles.

A year earlier, the majority-Republican Legislature passed more than $1 billion in temporary taxes, giving them June 2018 expiration dates, so lawmakers could do a more substantive overhaul this session. A study group offered a roadmap that its members said would achieve stability and plug holes.

But the House, where most tax measures must start, bottled up anything that could be considered a tax hike and jettisoned nearly every bill recommended by the task force. The Senate, which was more interested in a comprehensive package of tax changes, was stymied in what members could do with no cooperation from the House.

Both chambers are majority Republican, though the House is more conservative.

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Follow Melinda Deslatte on Twitter at http://twitter.com/melindadeslatte

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