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Wednesday, June 26, 2019

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Analysis: Deadline nearing, will Louisiana have a budget?

Analysis: Deadline nearing, will Louisiana have a budget?

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Faced with the risk of another failed special session, Gov. John Bel Edwards changed his approach with lawmakers and urged more in-your-face contact by the people whose state-financed programs are at risk of the chopping block.

The Democratic governor has hit the road and orchestrated several rallies with safety-net hospital workers, higher education leaders and other advocacy groups, hoping to pressure lawmakers to support taxes to close a budget gap looming fewer than five weeks away.

But the same political and philosophical divides that gridlocked a February special session threaten to crater efforts to reach a deal on taxes or a 2018-19 spending plan this time.

As if to highlight the possibility of failure, conversations have started privately - and in public legislative hearings - about the unsettling possibility of what happens if the new fiscal year starts in July without a budget.

About $1.4 billion in temporary taxes passed by lawmakers in 2015 and 2016 to plug budget holes disappear July 1. With other tax offsets, Louisiana is estimated to get $648 million less in general tax dollars next year.

Legislative leaders in the House and Senate, both Republican and Democrat, agree they need to replace some of the money. But as the expiration date has approached, the legislative response in the House - where most tax bills must start - has been inaction.

"What makes this special session different is that we've reached the end of the road. This is it," Edwards said in Lafayette on the opening day of the special session.

While the governor expected a sense of urgency to move the needle on a tax deal, tempers have flared in the latest special session. Angry exchanges have dug up years of traded blame over who caused the repeated budget crises and the procrastination for permanently fixing it.

"I cannot believe that we are sitting here and talking about this and have been for so long," said Rep. Major Thibaut, a New Roads Democrat.

Rep. Clay Schexnayder, a Gonzales Republican, said: "I get frustrated looking at a lot of this stuff and us not working together."

Even as he talked of putting partisanship aside, Edwards has repeatedly blamed House Republicans. As he introduced what he called a sales tax compromise, House GOP leader Lance Harris trashed Edwards' tax rhetoric. On the opening day of session, Republican House Speaker Taylor Barras released a video message describing Edwards as opposed to reform, addicted to taxes and engaged in political theater. Republicans and Democrats continue to issue dueling social media messages, disagreeing on the size and implications of the budget gap.

Edwards' veto of a $28.5 billion state operating budget only days before the special session began amped up GOP anger, even though lawmakers who passed the spending plan acknowledged it was largely unworkable for many agencies.

Republicans, who drove passage of the budget, said it would have given them a starting point to fill in gaps in the special session, rather than starting over and crafting a new spending plan in a 14-day session. Edwards called the budget "too catastrophic" to enact, with deep cuts to colleges, the TOPS tuition program, the social services agency and public safety programs.

Some lawmakers seem almost resigned to the expiration of the taxes without a replacement - and without an agreement on a budget containing cuts when the fiscal year starts. Would that mean state facilities shuttered, employees furloughed and the lights turned off?

Over two days of House tax committee hearings, Republican Rep. Phillip DeVillier pointedly asked about the prospect of not having a budget in place.

"If there's not a budget, it's a mess," said Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne, the governor's chief financial adviser.

Treasurer John Schroder said his staff and lawyers are talking about the implications. But he said it's likely that even though tax and fee dollars would be arriving in the state treasury, there would be no authorization to send that money to agencies.

"My thought is, without an appropriation, I can't spend the money," Schroder said.

The day of reckoning for the political feuding is nearing.


EDITOR'S NOTE: Melinda Deslatte has covered Louisiana politics for The Associated Press since 2000. Follow her at