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Sunday, July 14, 2019

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Edwards casts wide net in hunt for budget-balancing tax plan

Edwards casts wide net in hunt for budget-balancing tax plan

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — As he tries to find support for a tax plan, Gov. John Bel Edwards described himself Wednesday as "almost agnostic" about which approach Louisiana should take, as long as it gives the state long-term financial stability.

Edwards is looking for a tax package that the majority-Republican Legislature, particularly the more conservative House, could support to close a looming $1 billion-plus budget gap that hits in mid-2018 when temporary sales taxes expire.

To fill the shortfall and replace the expiring taxes, the Democratic governor told a Baton Rouge luncheon crowd that he'd support any mix of ideas for a tax overhaul recommended by the nonpartisan study group created last year by lawmakers. The group offered a long list of proposals to rewrite sales, business and personal income tax laws.

"I support the task force report," Edwards said. "Quite frankly, I'm almost agnostic as to what we pick and choose to fix the problem, so long as we fix the problem."

He added, however, that a good place to begin would be to lessen the billions of dollars in tax breaks that Louisiana has on the books.

Those ideas went nowhere last year in the Louisiana Legislature.

Still, Edwards said he's optimistic about reaching a compromise with lawmakers about a tax package to close the budget hole for the 2018-19 financial year that begins July 1. To make the full $1 billion-plus in cuts instead, he said, would be "catastrophic."

House Speaker Taylor Barras, a Republican, has described it as a "difficult exercise" to try to make the full amount in cuts, saying he doesn't see a way such reductions in spending could spare colleges, the TOPS free tuition program and health care programs. He said last week that he expects to find a solution that is a blend of cuts and taxes.

Edwards has been traveling the state, holding closed-door meetings with business leaders and local elected officials to outline the situation and build support for a budget-balancing fix involving taxes. He had another set of those meetings Wednesday in Baton Rouge.

He's also sitting down with lawmakers to solicit ideas for patching the hole.

Passing any tax plans will require a special legislative session. Edwards said he hopes to call a February special session, but he told the Baton Rouge Growth Coalition luncheon that he won't do that unless he can reach a consensus with House GOP leaders who were the primary roadblock to his previous tax proposals.

Barras has said he's working to find a consensus among lawmakers in his chamber, both Republican and Democrat, about what they can support. Edwards predicted that if lawmakers don't pass a tax plan in a February special session, they won't be able to agree on a budget with $1 billion-plus in cuts in the regular session that follows in March.


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