BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Louisiana lawmakers entered the final day of their special session on taxes Thursday with pending votes on how deeply they will cut health and education programs in the budget year that begins next month.
No matter how they vote ahead of the midnight deadline, the House and Senate will fall far short of the revenue goal set by Gov. John Bel Edwards to raise $600 million more for the $26 billion budget that starts July 1.
Lawmakers were ready to go home after 19 weeks of contentious work grappling with financial woes across three legislative sessions that heightened tensions between the House and Senate. They raised more than $1.2 billion in taxes for next year's budget earlier this year and have boosted that total by at least $258 million in the most recent session.
Senate President John Alario gave up Thursday morning on trying to raise another $88 million in the session's final hours, saying the House wouldn't go along with the plans.
"It's apparent the votes are not there on the House side to concur. It would be futile to try to do that," said Alario, R-Westwego. "I've had a discussion with the governor's people and they understand the consequences."
The proposal would have reduced personal income tax deductions for people who itemize on their state forms. The House rejected the measure earlier in the week. The Democratic governor and Alario tried unsuccessfully to revive it, against opposition from House Speaker Taylor Barras and other Republican House leaders.
Barras, R-New Iberia, said he thinks lawmakers have done enough to supplement the state budget amid what economists have described as a Louisiana-based recession.
"I consider it a success," he said. "I think the major concerns and the major holes that we had in higher education and health care are covered."
The largest tax measures backed by the House and Senate in this latest special session will boost the taxes charged on health care organizations known as HMOs and likely lessen inventory tax breaks for businesses. Lawmakers also crafted a multibillion-dollar construction budget and appeared likely to remove sales taxes unintentionally charged in the earlier special session on items like school athletic event tickets, firefighting equipment and prosthetic devices.
With taxes largely settled, the biggest unresolved issue was how to divvy up the money the House and Senate raised.
Both houses propose to give the safety-net hospitals that care for the poor the full amount sought by the Edwards administration, though the hospital operators say that's not enough to fully cover services.
The two chambers also agreed to cover only 70 percent of tuition costs for students in the TOPS college program, while keeping college campuses shielded from other cuts.
But they disagree over how deeply to cut the LSU medical schools, corrections and K-12 public schools.
The House version of the budget bill also spent $26 million more than the Senate version.
Senators say the House double-counted savings from the state's Medicaid expansion that had already been included in the budget, so they cut that amount. House leaders don't believe the money was double-counted.
Lawmakers have done nothing to respond to estimates that Louisiana may end the current budget year this month with up to a $200 million deficit.
Barras said he wants to wait until the books are officially closed to see what the real deficit might be, after accounting for prior tax changes and a delay in tax payments in parishes with flood damage.
"I just find it difficult to plan for a projection we're uncertain will develop," he said. "I'm just confident it will be something less than $200 million."
Rep. Sam Jones, an Edwards ally, was disappointed lawmakers didn't make more long-term, structural tax changes to end constant cycles of budget problems.
"We haven't fixed anything because everything is just plugging the budget again, just like the last eight years," said Jones, D-Franklin.