With the ever-nearing expiration of more than $1 billion in temporary taxes, the leader of the Louisiana House said he expects lawmakers in his chamber to rally around tax ideas by January to close the shortfall.
House Speaker Taylor Barras struck an optimistic tone about the chances of reaching consensus in a majority-GOP chamber that has been reticent to support any taxes, saying he expects enough agreement to have a special session on taxes early in the new year.
He's been visiting with House members around the state, to determine what tax proposals they would back. Individual groups of lawmakers also are meeting to discuss ideas, he said.
"I think people are a little more willing to generally understand because the deadline's a little closer. They're a little bit more engaged, and I'm encouraged by that," Barras said in an interview with The Associated Press.
If the Republican House speaker can build support around a slate of ideas, that could break a logjam between the chamber and Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards that has left the looming shortfall unresolved despite a year of debate about it.
Edwards pushed a litany of tax bills last year aimed at filling the mid-2018 budget gap when the temporary taxes expire July 1, only to see the tax proposals bottled up in the House.
Barras said he hopes by the time the latest state income projections are released in January that "we have a pretty good feel for what we're comfortable with" in the House. He's meeting with Edwards next week to discuss options and the status of House negotiations.
Any tax plans will require a special session to consider, but Edwards said he won't call one unless he can reach agreement with House GOP leaders. He wrote Barras in July, calling on House leaders to begin "constructive dialogue" on taxes and the budget gap. Without "bold changes," Edwards warned $1 billion in cuts in the $28 billion budget "would be catastrophic."
"I am hesitant to convene another special session without meaningful input from, and a concerted effort by, House leadership to help identify a viable path forward," Edwards wrote.
Barras said it's too early to determine what tax plans could gain passage in the House. But he's hopeful enough lawmakers will be on board with tax proposals to have the special session before the March start of the regular session in which lawmakers have to balance next year's budget. Waiting until after the regular session ends in June, Barras said, would "put ourselves at a huge disadvantage" because the new budget year begins weeks later.
"You'd leave 20 agencies hanging until a week before the fiscal year begins. I think there's a better way to do that," he said.
Barras said conversations with House members are covering a wide array of tax types, along with the state's multibillion-dollar tax break programs. He called the discussions general so far.
"I think you'll see that skinny up into probably a little bit more — by process of elimination — the 10, 12, 15 items that we think possibly make up the menu that could close that fiscal cliff," he said.
Talks involve temporary and permanent tax plans, including renewing all or part of an expiring 1 percent state sales tax that has boosted Louisiana's average state and local sales tax rate to the highest in the nation. Negotiations, Barras said, are aimed at "trying to replace a billion dollars," but not paying for some additional inflationary expenses beyond that.