SPECIAL SESSION 2018: Lawmakers call it quits, leaving budget mess unfixed

Gov. John Bel Edwards spoke after the special session ended early (Source: WAFB)
Gov. John Bel Edwards spoke after the special session ended early (Source: WAFB)

BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - After two weeks at the state capitol, lawmakers are going home empty handed, with no fix for the state's budget shortfall.

The governor called lawmakers into a special session to address the state's projected $1 billion fiscal cliff, caused by a penny of the state sales tax falling off the books starting July 1. But after days of delays and stalemates, lawmakers failed to pass anything to help clear up the budget gap.

While state leaders expect tax changes at the federal level to add $300 million to state coffers, that still leaves a roughly $700 million shortfall that could mean steep cuts to state-backed hospitals, healthcare, state colleges, and the TOPS program.

The governor blames the session's failure on the House Speaker Taylor Barras, R-New Iberia. "He is the individual who abandoned his own proposal to me, his own commitment to me on the very first day of the session," Governor John Bel Edwards said.

But Barras pointed the finger back at the governor, saying he failed to corral all the Democrats to vote for tax measures.

Many lawmakers expressed frustration that they did not pass anything. "There is a lot of blame to go around in this whole process," said Sen. Regina Barrow, D-Baton Rouge. "There's a lot of things that did not go correctly."

"One faction dug in, another faction dug in," said Senate President John Alario, R-Westwego. "It sort of reminds you of what's happening in Washington, D.C. I don't like that approach either."

Some lawmakers predicted the session's failure from the outset. Rep. Barry Ivey, R-Central, said there were not enough options for tax reform on the table to build consensus and keep the process moving. "The box becomes so small that you have to work in that you can't get all the support going," he said.

Meanwhile, others painted the session's outcome in a positive light, arguing it was premature for them to be there in the first place. Sen. Sharon Hewitt, R-Slidell, said she wants to find cuts. She could not, however, point to specifics. "Until we can really evaluate the budget and look at expenses, there's absolutely no way I can vote for new revenue," she said.

However, the governor does not believe legislators will be able to find $700 million in cuts. Some lawmakers believe they may not pass a budget during the upcoming regular session because of the shortfall. The governor is already planning for another special session. He wants to end the regular session early and hold another special session starting in mid-May. By doing so, they would not cost taxpayers any additional dollars to hold a special session. Special session are estimated to cost roughly $50,000 to $60,000 per day.

The governor warned come May, the "options aren't going to change, they're the same ones we had last year and this year." But with the bad blood of this special session flowing, it's also unclear if the result of another special session will be any different.

"We have a serious problem here in the House, because there's no trust between the two parties at this time," said Rep. Pat Smith, D-Baton Rouge.

Lawmakers begin the regular session on March 12. They cannot raise taxes during that session in accordance with state statutes.

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