- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 1, 2016

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - Negotiations over how best to rebalance Louisiana’s budget stayed largely behind the scenes Tuesday, with the House and Senate at odds over how to cope with the state’s worst financial troubles in decades.

Lawmakers in the House again stalled votes on tax hikes, as bill sponsors tried to rally enough support for passage in the majority Republican chamber. House Speaker Taylor Barras, R-New Iberia, called on House members to “bear with us” after another day of inaction.

“We have a number of members continuing to work several of the bills,” Barras said.

Senators voted on one tax bill Tuesday, a 1-cent sales tax increase that forms the centerpiece of any budget balancing plan because it generates large amounts of cash quickly.

But the Senate passed a different version of the tax than the House, meaning a final version remains to be reconciled. Still, Senate President John Alario, R-Westwego, declared it a “big start” to closing a budget hole estimated around $900 million before June 30.

Senators keep waiting for House members to vote on more taxes that could raise money to help patch the shortfall. But House leaders seem resistant to the idea, saying Tuesday they want to make sure senators are willing to make cuts, not just raise taxes.

A March 9 deadline on the special session is growing ever closer.

Gov. John Bel Edwards has been meeting with lawmakers, trying to corral votes and to get some movement from House leaders on additional tax bills.

“He’s clearly frustrated at the pace of things, but he’s also frustrated at the lack of alternatives. You’ve got these folks that won’t vote on enough revenue measures, but they also haven’t proposed enough in cuts,” the Democratic governor’s spokesman Richard Carbo said.

Rep. Lance Harris, chairman of the House Republican delegation, and Rep. Cameron Henry, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said they and other House Republicans want to see how the Senate crafts its versions of a budget cut package.

“Members are still focused on a balance of cuts and revenue,” said Henry, R-Metairie. “We want to try to keep that bill with the amount of cuts as close as possible to (the $106 million in cuts) we passed.”

Whether the House will hold up voting on any additional tax bills until the Senate charts its path remained unclear. The Senate Finance Committee doesn’t plan to rework the budget cut legislation until Thursday.

But Harris, R-Alexandria, insisted the special legislative session wasn’t at a stalemate.

“No, not at all,” he said. “This is just how the process works.”

House members were showing interest in possibly raising the cigarette tax and eliminating some tax exemptions from Louisiana’s existing sales tax.

“I’m open to anything, anything that raises some additional revenue,” Alario said.

The sales tax hike is the only tax bill to win support from both the House and Senate. It would raise an estimated $215 million for this year’s budget and more than $883 million annually. The two chambers differ, however, on how long the tax should be on the books. The House wants an 18-month expiration date, while the Senate supported five years, with the tax expiring earlier if state revenue collections hit certain benchmarks.

Rep. Sam Jones, D-Franklin, noted the short timeline for a deal to be struck.

“I’m pleased that everyone’s talking and we haven’t devolved into Washington. But it’s time to move,” he said. “Tick tock, tick tock.”

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