By MELINDA DESLATTE
BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) – Louisiana lawmakers are speeding to an early end of their latest special session, with final passage expected Sunday of a tax deal to avoid deep budget cuts and keep state finances on an even keel for seven years.
Senate committees Saturday quickly advanced the sales tax bill to raise $463 million for the budget that starts July 1 and a proposal to spend the money, putting them in line for Senate floor debate on Sunday. Lawmakers believe they might wrap up the legislative session that night, three days early.
"Hopefully, it’s the end of it, that day," said Republican Senate President John Alario.
House and Senate spending disagreements, however, remain to be resolved.
The sales tax proposal would renew 0.45 percent of an expiring 1 percent sales tax. The state sales tax rate would fall from 5 percent to 4.45 percent on July 1 and stay there until mid-2025. Several sales tax breaks for people and companies, including an exemption from sales taxes on business utilities, also would be scaled back during the period.
"It’s enough to meet everybody’s needs and the missions of those departments, we hope," Senate Finance Chairman Eric LaFleur, a Democrat, said of the money raised.
After tense days of negotiations, the House passed the sales tax with four votes to spare Friday, amid cheers and hugs from weary lawmakers who cratered two prior special sessions this year without a tax deal.
The Senate Revenue and Fiscal Affairs approved the tax proposal , sponsored by Baton Rouge Republican Paula Davis, without objection or debate Saturday.
Business groups have quietly supported the tax plan, which is also backed by Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards, higher education leaders and other groups seeking to stave off steep spending reductions.
Winning passage for a tax deal was difficult in the more conservative House, so senators had no intention of risking the requirement of a second vote there. Senators said they planned to approve the sales tax bill without any changes.
With that agreement in hand, the atmosphere at the Louisiana Capitol seemed lighter. But the House and Senate have yet to reach agreement on a final plan to spend the new money and incorporate it into next year’s $29 billion operating budget.
The budget proposal is $43 million less than senators sought. But it protects most of their major priorities.
"I’m partially satisfied," said Sen. Regina Barrow, a Baton Rouge Democrat.
The spending plan would maintain previous plans to keep health services, including nursing homes and safety-net hospitals, from cuts. College campuses, education programs, the TOPS tuition program, state parks, district attorneys and the child-welfare agency would be shielded from reductions. The food stamp program wouldn’t be eliminated.
Corrections officers would get a pay raise. Need-based aid for college students would grow. The foster care program would be expanded to pay for students to finish high school or until they reach age 21, rather than ending payments when a child turns 18.
Some agencies would take smaller cuts, and the budget wouldn’t contain enough money to pay local sheriffs to house state inmates in their jails. The state will owe sheriffs the money later.
"We’re going to make this work," said Corrections Secretary Jimmy LeBlanc.
Senators expressed concern dollars weren’t included to open a youth prison facility in Bunkie, since a law change will shift more teenagers from adult prisons to juvenile lock-up facilities in March.
The Senate Finance Committee made only one change to the available money. But senators also added another section with the $43 million in items they’d like to receive financing if Louisiana brings in more money than currently forecast. The question is whether the House will agree to that list.
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