Committee moves bill that could help close budget gap

BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - The House Committee on Ways and Means moved a bill by Rep. Lance Harris, R-Alexandria that could help to close the $648 million budget gap.

Harris' bill was the only revenue-raising bill to leave the committee, which is responsible for drafting most tax bills. House Bill 27 would extend a third of the fifth penny of state sales tax until 2023. If it becomes law, it would essentially create another fiscal cliff in five years.

Many lawmakers say it will be the centerpiece of negotiations between Republicans and Democrats for the remainder of the special session.

"The alternative is $495 million in cuts from the expenditure level that we are at today," Harris said.

Lawmakers expressed concern with the bill's temporary nature. It would leave the door open for structural tax reform, but the legislature rejected that effort in 2017.

The committee voted down bills by Rep. Terry Landry, D-New Iberia and Rep. Kenny Havard, R-Jackson that would have raised more money permanently. Harris said his bill had the best chance of passing the House because a temporary tax is easier for some of his Republican colleagues to swallow.

"Again, kicking the can is an understatement," Landry said. "I think we're just putting off the inevitable, which is being in the same type of situation that we're in today."

Harris' bill would tax business utilities at a lower rate, but make uniform certain exemptions on the other pennies of sales tax. Its fiscal note says the bill could raise $366 million, and Harris said he would not agree to amendments that would raise more. He advocated for making cuts to fill in the remaining gaps.

"It's not going to be comfortable," Harris said. "But it won't be catastrophic."

Harris says his measure is a tax increase because it would require taxpayers to pay more money for another five years, even though it's a lower rate than they've been paying since 2016.

Democrats on the committee loudly opposed cutting state government in lieu of extending the tax. "If that were to happen, no one is going to win that day," said Rep. Robert Johnson, D-Marksville. "We'll all become losers and it's not fair to the people we represent."

The bill now heads to the House floor for debate. Some Democrats, including Johnson, said Harris may have a tough time garnering support from their party on the floor. Full debate is expected to begin Friday.

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