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Breakthrough: Louisiana House reaches sales tax renewal deal

Breakthrough: Louisiana House reaches sales tax renewal deal

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — The Louisiana House smashed through its gridlock Friday, bridging disagreements about fractions of a penny and backing a sales tax proposal that could keep colleges and state services from seeing steep budget cuts in July.

With a 74-24 vote, lawmakers sent the Senate a bill that would renew nearly half of a 1 percent sales tax that expires July 1. The measure, which renews 0.45 percent of the tax that's set to expire, scraped through the House with just four more than the 70 votes it needed to pass. Cheers erupted in the chamber. One lawmaker shouted, "Thank God!"

The legislation, sponsored by Baton Rouge Republican Rep. Paula Davis, would keep the state sales tax rate at 4.45 percent for seven years. A mix of Republicans and Democrats supported the measure, and senators said they expected to pass it.

With that agreement in hand, legislative leaders said they hoped to end the session Sunday night, a few days early.

Davis thanked supporters of the tax for "your leadership, your courage, your maturity to move off your hard-fought positions."

"Not budging is no longer an option," she said. "Your constituents understand that this is a reasonable compromise."

The deal aimed to bridge disagreements between Gov. John Bel Edwards's push for a 0.5 percent rate and House GOP leaders' push for a 0.4 percent rate and stop Louisiana's third special session this year from crashing and burning without an agreement, like the prior two.

The Democratic governor praised the House-passed plan, saying it would stabilize Louisiana finances, keep the state from catastrophic budget cuts and "put us on a more solid foundation."

"We're not over the goal line yet, but we're so much closer to it today," he said at a celebratory news conference after the vote. "We can take a deep breath."

Once the deal was locked down — and missing lawmakers were called back to the Louisiana Capitol — the vote happened quickly, with no debate and no questions.

Senate President John Alario, a Republican, said he expected senators to accept the tax deal without making any changes, which would require another House vote on the measure: "No commas, no periods, no asterisks, nothing."

House Republican leaders split on the vote, with House Speaker Taylor Barras supporting it and Appropriations Chairman Cameron Henry and GOP delegation chairman Lance Harris opposed. Democrats voted in a bloc for the tax.

"We wore each other out," Barras told lawmakers. "We pulled it out in the end. Thank you for your patience."

In a statement, House Democratic leader Robert Johnson called the sales tax measure "an imperfect, but necessary instrument."

The proposal would raise $463 million — $43 million less than needed to fully finance the upcoming budget. Senators previously supported the 0.5 percent rate, but House lawmakers seemed optimistic the Senate would take the deal offered, rather than risk a last-minute session meltdown.

After passing the tax, lawmakers then backed a budget plan to spend the dollars.

The spending plan adopted in a 95-1 vote would shield college campuses, TOPS college tuition program, district attorneys, state-run public schools and education programs from cuts and keep the food stamp program from elimination. Health care services for the poor, elderly and disabled already were protected in the budget previously passed by lawmakers.

Some public safety programs still would take reductions, under the budget bill headed to the Senate for consideration. Alario said senators likely will make modest changes to the spending plan, "but nothing that should offend them."

Conservative organization Americans for Prosperity, the main political advocacy group for billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, had been working to defeat the tax bills and lamented Friday's vote.

"The idea of government living within its means was never a serious idea," John Kay, Louisiana state director of Americans for Prosperity, said in a statement.

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