Gov. John Bel Edwards

BATON ROUGE – The third special session of the Louisiana legislature ended Sunday night after the Senate and House approved sales tax measures to prevent deep cuts to vital state services.

The $32.8 billion budget for the 2019 fiscal year now awaits the signature of Gov. John Bel Edwards after House lawmakers voted 88-7 retain 45 percent of the one-penny sales tax which expires when the current fiscal year ends June 30.

“Our fiscal cliff is finally in the rearview mirror,” Gov. Edwards said in a press conference at the close of the session. “What we saw over the last few days is a legislature that found the courage to compromise and a strong desire to put Louisiana first – and Louisiana will benefit from that.”

The 0.45-cent renewal, sponsored by Baton Rouge GOP House member Paula Davis, passed the House 74-24 Friday and breezed through the Senate 33-6 Sunday. All three Livingston Parish senators – Dale Erdey, Eddie Lambert and Mack “Bodi” White – supported the bill.

The new sales tax amount will remain intact until June 30, 2025.

Approval of the bill Sunday night capped the third and final session. Legislators have been in session a total of 15 weeks, dating back to Feb. 19.

Lawmakers headed into the third extraordinary session of 2018 after the second session ended June 4 without revenue to fill a $583 million budget gap that would take shape once the two-year sales tax falls off the books on June 30.

The renewal will keep $463 flowing through state coffers – roughly $500 million less than the full penny generated. The bill will also scale tax breaks for large companies and reduce the exemption on business utilities.

Gov. Edwards recommended renewal of half a penny. Republican lawmakers led by Alexandria Rep. Lance Harris pushed for a 0.33-cent renewal, while other GOP House members opposed any renewal attempt.

The revenue falls about $100 million short of what Gov. Edwards sought from legislators.

“The plan the House approved is not perfect, but that’s the nature of a compromise,” Gov. John Bel Edwards said after the vote.

The bill spares cuts to higher education and TOPS. State universities faced $96 million in budget cuts – including $21 million for the flagship Louisiana State University.

TOPS would have taken an $88 million hit and would have left scholarship recipients to fork out 30 percent of the tuition costs effective with the fall semester.

The budget also keeps the axe from falling on state parks, district attorneys, and child welfare. It would also ensure continuation of the food stamp program.

“We saved a lot of vital services, but the TOPS, higher ed and K-12 were the most important,” said state Rep. J. Rogers Pope, R-Denham Springs, who supported the budget.

Students who attend college on the TOPS program would have faced a $2,200 out-of-pocket expense had the 30 percent cut taken effect, he said.

Full funding of TOPS marked a victory for a large chunk of Livingston Parish students, who attend college at LSU, Southeastern Louisiana University, Southern and other area colleges, Pope said.

“In my district alone, we have 846 students attend college on the TOPS program,” he said. “Consider that we have four House districts in this parish, and you have a lot of students who rely on this program.

“Students who earned the TOPS award were promised full funding, just as we’ve done for the incoming seniors headed into this school year,” said Pope, a former Livingston Parish School Board superintendent. “The state needs to honor its share of the deal.”

Fellow Livingston Parish lawmakers Valarie Hodges of Denham Springs, Sherman Mack of Albany and Clay Schexnayder of Gonzales – all Republicans – opposed the tax bill.

“I think in the end, in the coming year, you’ll see a big surplus of money left over, and a lot of people, departments especially, were pushing very eagerly to get their funding for their departments, which weren’t fully funded in the first House bill,” Schexnayder said. “Everybody had to make their votes for their district, but in the end, we’ll have a big surplus of money being spent where it shouldn’t have been spent.

“In the end, everyone had to make their vote,” he said. “We have to move forward and go from there.”

Hodges said the bill continues to support the growth of government and a waste of taxpayer dollars.

“This is the largest budget in the history of our state, and yet we were told that failure to pass it would result in nursing homes closing, district attorney’s offices closing and other things that probably wouldn’t have happened,” she said. “We have 2,200 job vacancies being funded, and the governor did not cut one of those positions.”

Hodges expects another budget surplus, but she does not think it will necessarily be good news for Louisiana taxpayers.

“Do you think we ‘ll give it back to taxpayers next year? Of course not,” she said. “It will be used for more spending and the budget will grow even more.”

The final passage brought an end to the third and last session of 2018. It marked the seventh special session since Gov. Edwards took office in 2016.

Each special session costs taxpayers $60,000 per day.

State Rep. Clay Schexnayder expressed disappointment over the outcome and time it took to reach the decision.

“We spent a lot of tax money and spent too much time to come to a decision like this,” said Schexnayder, R-Gonzales. “We may have a surplus this year, but we’re going to run into the same problems again and again until we see fiscal reform, and that just didn’t seem too interest many people during this session.”

A different aspect of the session bothered Pope.

He believes the increasingly divisive nature of state politics has hampered the decision-making process for the state.

“You have Republicans and Democrats getting into ugly name-calling and you’re starting to see it within the parties, as well,” he said. “We’re seeing Washington politics spill down to the state level, and I blame that on the special interest groups that don’t really care what happens to our state.

“We’ve become too extreme,” he said. “We no longer seem willing to compromise, which only comes when everyone meets in the middle – not just Republicans, not just Democrats, not just Independents. I’m really sorry to see what’s happened in our legislature.”

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