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'Our last chance': Louisiana lawmakers back for tax session

'Our last chance': Louisiana lawmakers back for tax session

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Gov. John Bel Edwards said a special session starting Tuesday is Louisiana's "last chance" to avoid steep, damaging budget cuts when temporary taxes expire in six weeks.

"One last time, we have a chance and we have a choice. Will we seize this chance to keep the train on its tracks, or will we make the choice to fall off the fiscal cliff?" the Democratic governor told a crowd gathered at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette on the opening day of the session.

When they gavel in later Tuesday afternoon, the House and Senate will convene their sixth special session in three years, all called by Edwards to address Louisiana's persistent financial troubles.

This 14-day gathering, like a prior special session in February, will determine if lawmakers will agree to replace some of the expiring taxes. The special session earlier this year ended in stalemate in the House amid partisan disputes. Edwards said he's hopeful the sense of urgency will drive action — and tax passage — this time.

"I know this special session can be different from all the others. More of us are on the same page. We want the same things," Edwards said.

To kick off this latest session, the governor moved away from the traditional speech to lawmakers in the House chamber. Instead, he traveled to Lafayette, to one of the college campuses threatened with budget cuts if taxes aren't renewed.

House Appropriations Chairman Cameron Henry, a GOP leader often at odds with the governor, criticized the speech location change. In a Facebook video, Henry said it was "breathtaking that that's how you'd begin your communicating with legislators is to do it via a meeting in Lafayette instead of with the Legislature in Baton Rouge."

About $1.4 billion in temporary taxes passed by lawmakers in 2015 and 2016 to plug budget holes are expiring July 1 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.

Edwards wants lawmakers to raise $648 million to offset the gap — and to make whatever taxes are passed a permanent change, ending annual worries about massive budget shortfalls. Beyond taxes, lawmakers will need to work on next year's budget, after the governor Friday vetoed a version that contained deep cuts.

The governor's plan mainly involves sales taxes. He supports renewing up to half the 1 percent sales tax expiring in six weeks, to raise more than $400 million a year, and he also backs permanent removal of some sales tax breaks and the continued charging of sales taxes on business utilities. But Edwards also said he's open to other tax ideas lawmakers might have.

Edwards is framing the plan as a net tax reduction because Louisiana residents still would pay less next year than they currently are paying this year. Critics disagree, saying the taxes were due to fall off the books and any renewal would constitute a tax hike.

Pressure will be high from both sides of the tax debate.

Conservative organization Americans for Prosperity has launched an ad campaign slamming individual lawmakers who have voted for tax bills in the past. Meanwhile, higher education and health care leaders are seeking support for replacement taxes to keep their programs from cuts.

Lawmakers say there have been scant negotiations ahead of the session, creating questions about whether the House will break through its gridlock this time to pass both taxes and a budget, before the June 4 deadline.

"It's going to be difficult to do to say the least, but obviously we're going to try," Henry said.

During the last special session, there were multiple factions in the majority-GOP House. Some House Republicans refused to consider any tax measures. Other House Republicans willing to consider taxes favored sales taxes. Democrats, particularly members of the Legislature's Black Caucus, favored income taxes.

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