BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - Louisiana voters will get a reprieve from the barrage of statewide elections in 2017 after three years of near nonstop campaigning and advertising.
The political maneuvering doesn’t end, however. It just moves more behind the scenes.
Budget and tax haggling will absorb most of the oxygen at the Louisiana Capitol ahead of a regular legislative session that starts in April. The fights between Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards and Republican Attorney General Jeff Landry are expected to continue.
Louisiana’s newest members of Congress take office Tuesday and figure out how they’ll fit into the new Donald Trump era of politics. And a special election to fill the newly open state treasurer’s seat likely will pit legislative colleagues against each other in what might be the only statewide election for the year.
As has been the case for nearly a decade, the state’s near-perpetual financial problems will be front and center with the Louisiana Legislature. This time it will come in the form of a tax reform debate aimed at ending the repeated cycles of budget shortfalls.
At Gov. John Bel Edwards’ urging, lawmakers passed more than $1.5 billion in tax increases to fill gaps in this year’s more than $27 billion state operating budget. But the tax revenue didn’t come in as high as expected, creating new gaps.
In addition, Edwards and lawmakers enacted mainly temporary tax hikes to fill holes - until they could do a full rewrite of tax laws. They’ve created a massive financial cliff for 2018, when the temporary taxes fall away.
The governor and House Republican leaders disagree on what the term “reform” means, like how to spread the tax burden and whether they want to raise more money for government. Adding pressure to the philosophical arguments, they’ll have to decide how to address the budget gap they created for themselves.
“We have to decide that we are going to pay for the government that we want. And we’ve got to bring this into balance,” Edwards said at a recent luncheon. “The longer we wait, the greater disservice we do to our state.”
House Speaker Taylor Barras, R-New Iberia, suggested more cuts should be made before increasing taxes: “I think the revenue raised to the cuts is still kind of out of proportion.”
Before they can debate a wholesale tax rewrite, Edwards and lawmakers need to rebalance this year’s budget, expected to have a gap of $300 million or more. It’s unclear so far if that will require a special session.
Amid the budget haggling, lawmakers also are expected to consider proposals to drum up more money for road and bridge work in a state with a $13 billion backlog of repair and improvement projects. The centerpiece proposal is increase in the state’s gasoline tax.
Edwards also is spearheading a bipartisan push to rework Louisiana’s criminal sentencing laws in the legislative session, with support from the business community amid Louisiana’s top-in-the-nation incarceration rate and ever-growing prison costs.
Louisiana’s financial policies also are expected to be a focal point of the special election to fill the state treasurer’s seat.
The job vacancy will be created when Republican John Kennedy is sworn in Tuesday as Louisiana’s newest U.S. senator. Kennedy’s chief deputy will run the treasurer’s office until someone is elected to the job. The special election will be held in October, and already several lawmakers and others are expressing interest in the race.
Beyond Kennedy, the state’s congressional delegation will see two other freshmen enter the fold: Republicans Mike Johnson and Clay Higgins.
Johnson followed a more traditional path to Congress, first serving as a state lawmaker, while Higgins surprised the political establishment with his overwhelming, seemingly out-of-nowhere victory. Higgins is a former sheriff’s captain who became a local celebrity known as the “Cajun John Wayne” with his brash-talking Crimestoppers videos.
Whether the strong-minded newbies will work collaboratively in the state’s eight-member delegation will be something to watch in the new congressional term, as Louisiana continues to grapple with flood recovery needs.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Melinda Deslatte has covered Louisiana politics for The Associated Press since 2000. Follow her at https://twitter.com/melindadeslatte
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