BATNO ROUGE, Louisiana — Louisiana lawmakers remain undecided on how to close next year's $1.6 billion shortfall, so the House tax committee has advanced a menu of options that could become the building blocks of a budget-balancing deal.
The Ways and Means Committee spent much of this week approving any tax proposal that might have a chance of full legislative passage and that can be used to piece together the larger budget puzzle.
Cigarette tax increase? Sent to the House floor. Caps on Louisiana's film tax credits? Three options advanced to the full House. Proposals to collect state sales tax from online retailers? Two of those won committee passage. Suspension of tax breaks, closure of corporate tax loopholes, solar tax credit changes? All moved to the House for consideration.
Now that the committee has given the House more than two dozen ideas, the tough part begins: finding tax changes that enough lawmakers will back in an election year and that fall under strict guidelines of what Gov. Bobby Jindal will support.
Financing for public colleges and health care services for the poor, elderly and disabled hinge on the decisions. Those areas are the most vulnerable to budget cuts. Hundreds of LSU students protested on the state capitol steps Thursday, worried about the threat of deep cuts.
Committee Chairman Joel Robideaux, R-Lafayette, framed the larger budget negotiations as a debate over priorities. He said tax incentives should be considered as state spending that must be weighed against other items in the budget.
"Do we maintain our current level of investment in tax incentives, or do we choose to invest some of these dollars in health care and higher education?" Robideaux asked. He said he believes "we need to craft a budget that doesn't do permanent damage to our most important engine of long-term economic growth — higher education."
The proposals approved by the Ways and Means Committee could generate anywhere from a few million dollars to hundreds of millions for the state budget. Some require a two-thirds vote.
But just because the panel agreed to move a piece of legislation to the House floor, that doesn't mean the measure has widespread support — or even the backing of committee members. Robideaux said his committee simply wanted to give lawmakers the ability to sift through as many revenue-raising options as possible.
The House Appropriations chairman, Rep. Jim Fannin, R-Jonesboro, is holding the budget bills in his committee, waiting to see what tax changes the House is willing to support and what money that could give him to plug into next year's budget.
Normally, Fannin's committee would advance the budget bills next week, but that's been pushed back a week.
With constitutional requirements that most of the bills involved in the budget talks must start in the House, the Senate is awaiting decisions from its colleagues.
"We're hoping the House will get together with the leadership and the members to determine which of those measures they're going to pass out," said Senate President John Alario, R-Westwego. "That would give us a clear picture of the revenue measures that we're going to have to be able to deal with."
A member of the Legislature since 1972, Alario said he's not yet worried lawmakers won't reach a budget deal before the session must end June 11.
"It's kind of like a basketball game. You watch the last four minutes," he said. "I would get concerned a couple of weeks out if there wasn't sufficient revenue to close the gap."
Louisiana Legislature: http://www.legis.la.gov
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