- Associated Press - Tuesday, May 5, 2015

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - After weeks of back-room wrangling, the budget-balancing debate is moving to the floor of the Louisiana House, with colleges and health services at the mercy of the high-stakes decisions.

House leaders are asking their colleagues to decide Thursday which tax changes they’re willing to make - tax hikes, scaled-back tax breaks or lessened business incentives - to help balance next year’s budget and close a $1.6 billion shortfall.

The House budget committee needs decisions by Monday, so it can know what money is available to craft its version of the multibillion-dollar spending plans for the fiscal year that begins July 1. Action in the Appropriations Committee by early next would keep the budget on track to make it through the House and Senate before the legislative session must end June 11.

“Any delay past this week puts the Appropriations Committee in an almost impossible position to deliver a timely budget,” said Ways and Means Committee Chairman Joel Robideaux, R-Lafayette, a key figure in the financial negotiations.

But Robideaux said he doesn’t know what tax changes the House will support, if any.

“We’re going to give the body the list, and I don’t know what number we’re going to hit,” he said Tuesday.

House Speaker Chuck Kleckley, R-Lake Charles, said lawmakers need to raise around $800 million with the tax changes to help close the gap in next year’s budget without damaging cuts. He wouldn’t speculate on what mix of proposals might win House support but said he’s confident something will emerge to help close the budget gap.

“House members want to fix the higher education cuts. They want to fix the health care cuts. They want to do everything they can to fix this budget,” he said.

Robideaux said he won’t push to stay within guidelines set by Gov. Bobby Jindal. The Republican governor, who has steadfastly refused tax increases during his two terms, has said he won’t support anything that he considers a net tax hike.

Lawmakers have been trying to find loopholes to work within Jindal’s “revenue neutral” terms. But Robideaux said that’s not a priority.

“I feel strongly that the House needs to act in a fiscally-responsible way, and if that means passing a budget that doesn’t conform to the notion of ‘revenue-neutrality,’ then so be it,” he said.

His committee has spent the last two weeks sending more than two dozen proposals to the House floor for consideration: an increase in the cigarette tax, caps on Louisiana’s film tax credits, proposals to collect state sales tax from online retailers, temporary suspensions of tax breaks, closure of corporate tax loopholes and solar tax credit changes, among others.

Also advanced to the House for debate is a variation on Jindal’s proposal to scale back the state tax credits given to businesses to reimburse them for paying local property taxes on their inventory.

If House lawmakers don’t agree to any tax changes to drum up new money, the biggest cuts would fall on higher education and health care services for the poor, elderly and disabled. Colleges face the threat of losing 80 percent of their state financing next year.

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Online:

Louisiana Legislature: www.legis.la.gov


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