April 17, 2017 02:07 PM
Gov. John Bel Edwards
Photo by Robin May

Battling strong sentiment against his tax package, Gov. John Bel Edwards wants to intensify the heat on his Republican critics about the need for tax reform to stabilize Louisiana’s budget. The Democratic governor’s message to the GOP is sort of a “put up or shut up” approach.

Whether that shift in tone will pick up votes or change the debate’s outcome is questionable, but it could lay the groundwork for what Edwards tells the public if the legislative session ends in June with little accomplished on rewriting Louisiana’s tax laws.

Edwards didn’t hide frustration in his speech on the session’s opening day, suggesting some Republicans were becoming obstructionists who spout political talking points — but offer few solutions of their own.

He urged the House and Senate to avoid Washington partisanship, and he suggested lawmakers who don’t like his tax ideas and who talk about shrinking government spending need to wade deeper into that debate.

“Advance your own plan or be willing to endorse specific cuts that will be necessary if you take the cuts-only approach, and then vote for them. I can respect that,” Edwards told them. “What I cannot respect is voting no on everything without offering your own proposal.”

Republican leaders in the House, where Edwards has faced stronger resistance, were less than pleased with the tone.

“When I hear stuff about Washington-style politics, usually that means somebody is disappointed that somebody does not agree with them 100 percent,” said Rep. Lance Harris, of Alexandria, chairman of the House GOP delegation. “We are going to have philosophical disagreements down here.”

House Speaker Taylor Barras, a New Iberia Republican, said several GOP House members — such as Reps. Julie Stokes of Kenner and Barry Ivey of Baton Rouge — have long been working on proposals to rewrite Louisiana’s tax structure, while others have ideas for redesigning budget practices.

And even as Edwards chastised lawmakers about not having their own plans, the Legislature still didn’t have the centerpiece of the governor’s tax rewrite package, a proposal to shift more of the state’s tax burden to business by charging companies a new tax on their gross receipts.

The bill wasn’t yet filed when lawmakers wrapped up their first workweek, and several of them — both Edwards’ allies and opponents — complained about the inability to see the details of a measure aimed at raising hundreds of millions of dollars a year.

The Edwards administration said the proposal would be introduced by its legislative sponsor Monday, after tweaks to address concerns about too heavily hitting certain types of businesses.

With no bill to study, legislative opposition appears to be hardening against the gross receipts tax, which Edwards is calling a commercial activity tax, nicknamed CAT.

“I’m getting a feel for what they absolutely don’t like and that’s primarily CAT at this point,” Barras said of House members, including himself.

Edwards wants the tax rewrite to replace $1.3 billion in expiring, temporary taxes in mid-2018 and to bring in more money on top of that for state services. Lawmakers disagree on whether they want to raise more money like Edwards wants, just replace the expiring taxes or don’t want to fill the whole gap.

Barras said he’s hopeful lawmakers will settle on an approach this session to address the looming financial cliff. He expects lawmakers will make changes to tax break programs and possibly sales taxes, but he’s not sure they’ll do a widespread rewrite of tax laws.

While Edwards wants to let expire a temporary, 1 percent increase in the state sales tax enacted last year, the House speaker said some portion of that may need to be renewed to keep the budget balanced.

“I think that’s not what we discuss first. I think that’s probably the fallback after we’ve debated the other tax options,” Barras said.

Edwards has a bleak warning, saying if lawmakers don’t agree to some sort of plan, “we’re going to end up right back here with a needless and costly special session where the options won’t be any better than they are now."

Melinda Deslatte has covered Louisiana politics for The Associated Press since 2000. Follow her at http://twitter.com/melindadeslatte

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