Louisiana lawmakers will return to the state Capitol after the Mardi Gras holiday to debate replacing $1 billion in expiring taxes, a special session called Friday by Gov. John Bel Edwards in hopes of averting deep budget cuts.
The 17-day session will begin Feb. 19 at 4 p.m. and must end by March 7.
Edwards called the special session even though it's unclear if he'll have enough votes from House Republicans to pass taxes — a benchmark he had previously set. In a statement, the governor said he feels "confident that we are coming to an area of compromise," though he didn't describe what that might include.
"There is a growing consensus among lawmakers that the fiscal cliff can and should be addressed in February, and I agree," Edwards said. "This special session will give us the opportunity to make reforms that we all know are needed in Louisiana to stabilize our budget and tax code."
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The governor's aim is to have more money available for spending before lawmakers start their regular session in mid-March and craft next year's budget. Without replacement revenue, he said Louisiana would have to make devastating cuts to health care services, public safety programs and the TOPS free college tuition program.
Edwards issued the formal outline for the session after meeting with Senate President John Alario and House Speaker Taylor Barras, who supported holding a February session to determine how much tax revenue will be available to spend, rather than allow uncertainty to linger.
The session agenda allows consideration of several tax types and certain spending control measures sought by Republicans in exchange for tax votes, such as tightened limits on spending growth and new cost-share and work requirements for some Medicaid patients.
The $1 billion budget gap stems from the July 1 expiration of temporary sales taxes passed by lawmakers in 2016, planned as a bridge to a larger rewrite of Louisiana's tax laws that never happened. House Republican leaders blocked previous tax proposals pushed by the governor.
To replace the expiring revenue with taxes requires a special session, which costs an estimated $50,000 to $60,000 a day.
It's the fifth special session Edwards has called since taking office in January 2016, all involving state budget gaps. The gatherings have been marked by continued disagreements between the governor and the House GOP over taxes and state spending levels.
This one is shaping up to be similar.
"This is a waste of money," Rep. Reid Falconer, a St. Tammany Parish Republican, posted on Twitter after the session was announced.
Republican lawmakers are split on whether to replace the expiring taxes and when to have the session. But no lawmaker has offered a proposal for how to close the gap entirely with cuts.
Edwards has offered a worst-case-scenario $25.3 billion state operating budget proposal that would strip the money by ending many safety-net health programs and eliminating 80 percent of TOPS financing.
Rather than make those cuts, Edwards is pushing a tax package that could raise or maintain higher taxes on businesses and middle- and upper-income earners. But his proposal wouldn't fully close the shortfall.
Barras said an Edwards proposal to charge sales taxes on services such as cable television and Netflix is a non-starter with House Republicans, along with certain adjustments proposed to personal income taxes. Some GOP lawmakers are suggesting renewal of all or part of an expiring 1 percent state sales tax, but Edwards opposes the idea.