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Analysis: Ninth legislative session awaits weary lawmakers

Analysis: Ninth legislative session awaits weary lawmakers

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Everybody ready for some more?

Exhausted, frustrated lawmakers may not be in the best mindset as they ready for their ninth legislative session in three years and another round of the divisive tax debates.

They'll head into that discussion with nerves on edge, tensions simmering and no deals yet struck to stop the deep budget cuts that are only six weeks away.

But Gov. John Bel Edwards and others who want taxes passed hope this session will have a new twist: a sense of urgency.

"I have renewed optimism that we're going to get this done," Edwards said.

About $1.4 billion in temporary taxes passed by lawmakers in 2015 and 2016 to plug budget holes are expiring with the start of the new budget year. With other tax offsets, Louisiana is estimated to get $648 million less in general tax dollars next year than this year. A February special session on taxes ended in collapse, with no dollars raised to offset cuts, amid partisan disputes.

Now, they'll try again, with a two-week special session that began Tuesday.

Lawmakers are not necessarily starting with happy thoughts and excitement. Rather, they're dragging themselves into a session still smarting from previous divisive debates - and with relations tense between the Democratic governor and the majority-Republican Legislature.

Proving the festering friction, two lawmakers recently had a bar fight over legislative disputes. Other legislators have had enough raised voices during recent late-night debates that Republican House Speaker Taylor Barras had to remind his colleagues about the need for decorum.

Meanwhile, when the governor's chief budget adviser, Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne, trashed a budget version passed by senators, GOP Senate President John Alario and others dressed Dardenne down in such a fashion that word of the exchange quickly spread throughout the Louisiana Capitol. In a likely signal to the governor, Alario urged Dardenne to "put all of the rhetoric aside."

And Edwards provoked irritation - and, in some instances, outright anger - with the decision to send letters this month to 37,000 people who are elderly and disabled, about half of them in nursing homes, warning they could lose the financing that pays for their care in July. House Republicans had backed a budget that would have shuttered those programs without new tax revenue, though the Senate didn't support that plan.

Republicans called the letters a premature scare tactic that created unnecessary anxiety for Louisiana's most vulnerable residents before budget debates are even settled.

"The decision by the governor and this administration to give eviction notices to the elderly population of Louisiana, without question, is a political move. It's egregious," said House GOP leader Lance Harris, of Alexandria.

Edwards said his administration was "legally obligated to send" the notices, though the statutes provided by his office to back that assertion don't specifically require the letters the health department sent.

Democrats defended the notices.

Senate Finance Chairman Eric LaFleur, a Ville Platte Democrat, said "it was reasonable and practical" to warn people and their families about the possibility of what could happen under budget-cutting scenarios.

The worry about damaging cuts, however, seems to have moved more lawmakers to openly advocate for some "replacement revenue," ahead of the latest tax debate.

"Do I think we need to raise some money? Yes, I think it's time we do that," said House Appropriations Chairman Cameron Henry, a Metairie Republican.

But the lawmakers who are willing to consider taxes still disagree on the type they'll support - and how much should be raised. Legislators have differing levels of optimism about whether a deal can be reached, even with the nearing tax expiration.

Sen. Jay Luneau, an Alexandria Democrat, noted his proposal to make permanent some cuts made several years ago to tax incentive programs for businesses was spurned by the House tax committee only a week before the special session starts.

"If we can't pass a continuation of a reduction done three years ago so a program will have a positive return on investment, then how are we going to possibly pass any revenue measures in a special session?" Luneau said.

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