Special Session Fails Over Pennies

It is hard to know just what to say about the second special session this year that crashed without addressing the state’s very real and looming fiscal problems. By any measure it was a disappointment and the blame game is still ongoing. That’s probably to be expected, but at this point it gets us nowhere.

But we do know two things for certain: 1) the Legislature has passed a budget that makes huge cuts in important state services, particularly higher education and TOPS, and 2) those cuts will take effect in just about three weeks unless the Legislature does what it has been unable to do thus far and mitigates some of the coming loss in state revenue.

After the most recent session, that looks like a tall order.

What might be helpful is to focus on what’s at the heart of the Legislature’s disagreement over a solution. Yes, to a large degree it’s about politics, and partisanship, and philosophy, but what’s the issue for the average citizen?

To a large degree it’s about pennies.

Today if you buy an item that costs $100, you will pay an additional one dollar in the form of a sales tax that is scheduled to go away June 30. Of the two primary sales tax proposals on the table during the special session, one would have reduced that extra dollar to 50 cents. The other would take it down to 33 cents. It’s a difference between the two of 17 cents.

That’s barely even pocket change on a $100 purchase, yet it’s also the difference between fully funding TOPS, higher education, prisoner housing, juvenile justice services, and various health-related items, or choosing which among them all to cut. That 17 cents is what brought the special session to a crash ending.

A couple of things are worth noting. One is that on the first sales tax vote on the final night of the session the proposal to bring the sales tax down to a half-cent received 63 votes – a solid majority of the House, but seven votes short of the super-majority needed to pass. On another vote it received 56 votes – still a majority. The bill to reduce it to a third-of-a-penny received just 38 votes – a little over a third of the vote.

The other thing to consider is that all of the votes on the sales tax bills occurred after 11:30 p.m., less than 30 minutes before the mandatory midnight close of the session.

What that means is that in the waning minutes a majority of the House members voted twice for the half-cent tax renewal. It was short of the two-thirds vote that was needed, but if the clock had not been ticking toward midnight, with a mini-filibuster intended to block another vote underway, there is reason to believe the sales tax issue could have been resolved.

But it wasn’t.

In the meantime, we plow full steam ahead with continued distress and uncertainty for students, businesses, and some of our most vulnerable populations with yet another costly special session on the horizon.

As the votes show, this is an issue that is well within the reach of the Legislature to fix. So, forget the finger pointing. It’s long past time to get this job done on behalf of the people of Louisiana.

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