JBE To Leges: Pass My Tax Increases Or I’ll Call Special Sessions Until You Do

Since John Bel Edwards was inaugurated as Louisiana’s governor almost a year and a half ago there have been five different sessions of the Louisiana legislature, and yesterday Edwards indicated a sixth is coming before the regularly-scheduled one next year. If the legislators won’t pass any of the tax increase bills he and others have proposed, he says he’ll call what will be the fourth of his special sessions.

Perhaps he’s counting on exhaustion as an ally.

With most of his tax agenda in tatters, Gov. John Bel Edwards said Wednesday that it’s becoming more likely he’ll call a special session over the next year to deal with a mid-2018 budget hole that state lawmakers have done little to patch.

“Time is closing out on us, and quite frankly. I’m disappointed with how far behind the Legislature is,” Edwards said on his monthly radio call-in show.

Louisiana faces a more than $1 billion budget shortfall that hits in July 2018, when temporary sales taxes passed by lawmakers expire. Edwards wants lawmakers to pass a variety of tax measures to close the gap, known in the Louisiana Capitol as the “fiscal cliff.”

As a point of information, of course, the Legislature isn’t “far behind.” The House decided after the last of Edwards’ special sessions earlier this year that rather than accede to any more of his tax increases they would just hold the line on spending for now until seeing what that budget shortfall actually turns out to be for next year.

After all, if you’re looking at a budget shortfall, what’s the first thing you do? You cut back on spending money that you don’t expect to have. Simple, right? Not for our governor.

While three weeks remain in the legislative session, Edwards acknowledged the dismal outlook for tax bills. A day before Edwards’ comments on the radio, the House overwhelmingly rejected the first significant proposal to come up for a vote that would raise money to fill the looming shortfall, a bill to permanently scrap millions of dollars in sales tax breaks.

“Every day it looks more and more likely that we’ll have to have a special session,” the governor said.

If Edwards was serious about solving Louisiana’s budget problems he would have already cut a deal with the House, which passed a budget funding the state’s government at 97.5 percent of the revenues projected by the Revenue Estimating Committee, the spending in which is nearly identical to the final budget for the current fiscal year adjusted after midyear cuts, to accept their standstill budget. Instead, he sent his minions out to the media to offer a Parade of Horribles intended to make voters panic and demand tax increases, the effect of which was to make Republicans in the House dig in on spending cuts rather than taxes as a means of solving the budget for 2017-18.

And since the House sent that standstill budget to the Senate before passing any tax bills, that standstill budget is all the money the Senate will have to spend. Typically the Senate will take the House budget and pump it up with additional spending, then demand the House pass taxes to fund those luxuries. There aren’t many vehicles left in the House to do that at this point with Edwards’ tax bills dying off like flies, and that means the Senate might actually have to accept the standstill budget.

But Edwards doesn’t want to accept it. He’s talking about next year’s fiscal cliff, and there is a legitimate issue with respect to it – though how large the deficit will be if the “temporary” sales tax increases passed last year aren’t extended, nobody really seems to know – but what Edwards really wants is some tax increases now to pay for the larger budget the House refuses to give him.

It isn’t like he’s fooling anybody in the Legislature. They all know the game. And they also know that if the House wins the game of Chicken which is about to unfold as this session comes to a close Edwards is going to call another one of his special sessions almost immediately after this one ends in a couple of weeks. And that’ll mean the Senate will ignore the House’s standstill budget and pass something larger – which, if the House doesn’t relent and pass a tax increase to fund it means there won’t be a budget agreement and therefore there must be a special session.

The House’s play at that point might be to just gavel in a special session and then gavel it out and go home, leaving the governor with the responsibility to spend only what money comes in. That will occasion great howling and lots of Washington Monument Strategy-type publicity stunts to test the members’ resolve – not to mention more demands for special sessions.

The guess is a deal of some sort will be cut and there will be a meeting somewhere in the middle. It may be that the House will agree to Edwards’ massive gas tax increase which is supposed to go to road projects (that needs 70 votes and most people think the House won’t pass it) in exchange for the standstill budget becoming law.

Or we might see another one of Edwards’ endless special sessions. It seems like he can’t get enough of them, which makes him a rather odd duck at the Capitol.

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