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Play Ball!

“We did the best we could in the time we had.” – Sen. Eric LaFleur

It began promisingly enough, when the Louisiana Senate took the field in the next-to-last day of the second special session. Three up, three down, with passage of a trio of Senate resolutions, and then the House bills came up to bat.

First up was HB 3, the bond act for funding capital outlay projects. As Sen. Revenue and Fiscal Affairs chairman J.P, Morrell (D-New Orleans) reminded his team, the bill had whiffed in the regular session. They gave it a base on balls, 33-0.

But before they could get to the heavy hitters – the budget bills, and the tax measures – they brought the tarps out. Rain delay, in baseball terms – recess, in legislative lingo.

There followed conferences on the mound, behind the plate, in the outfield, and in the dugout. And once those concluded, there was ample distraction for the players, as they awaited resumption of the game. Senators and observers alike were watching LSU take on Northwestern State in the NCAA baseball regional semifinals. Once the Tigers defeated the Demons, 9-5, it wasn’t long before the Senate game resumed, and took up the main budget bill, HB 1.

Senate Finance chairman Eric LaFleur (D-Ville Platte) explained the overall status of the bill, saying, “We funded the public-private partner hospitals, medical schools and DCFS; we intend to fill higher ed at 100%, and we also funded 100% of TOPS. We’re funding $586-million of the $648-million that makes up the fiscal cliff.”

And while legislative staff worked to enter all the suggested changes into their proper slots within the voluminous budget bill, rather than get charged with delay of game, they brought in a reliever.

Sen John Milkovich (D-Keithville), proceeded to lob a series of wild pitches – offering a string of amendments to the budget, much as he had done during the regular session. They included a hiring freeze and a pay freeze for the executive branch, breaking the state’s contracts with the Saints and Pelicans, and ending the film tax credit program. None of them crossed the plate.

As part of his wind-up for his final pitch – an amendment that would strip $50-million from the Department of Education – Milkovich took a moment of personal privilege.

“You know, we should all recognize that our Senate President treats everyone with respect, and allows them to state their views,” Milkovich said.

“Thank you, Sen. Milkovich,” Senate President John Alario responded, “But I am still not voting for your amendment.”

When that one failed on a vote of 1-36, Alario did compliment Milkovich in return, for his “handling those amendments very efficiently.”

LaFleur returned to the mic, then explaining that the bill now utilized the $541-million in tax dollars they would be voting on later, and $53-million of annual proceeds from the BP settlement, which would have otherwise been placed in the Rainy Day Fund, Elderly Trust and Transportation Trust Fund.

“We didn’t have enough to fund everything,” he told them. Then, laughing ruefully, he added, “We’ve always been credited with being able to pull off Harry Potter-type budget magic. This time we can’t. “We can only do what we’ve done here by taking money from some other agency. LDH is going to sustain $126-million in total cuts, and several other state agencies are cut between two and five percent. But that’s all we can do today.”

While most who came to the lectern to ask questions about specific details were appreciative of the work the Senate Finance chairman had done, one member of his committee wasn’t above kicking some dirt on the umpire’s shoes.

“We have a process, and that includes vetting all these changes in committee first, so we can see what we’re doing with the money,” Sen. Jim Fannin (R-Jonesboro) complained. The process loses integrity when we do this in just one hour on the floor, especially since we’ve been here since February!”

“We got this bill Thursday night,” LaFleur replied. “We’ve only had it for 72 hours. As you know, having formerly chaired House Appropriations, chasing the money around isn’t easy. We did the best we could in the time we had.”

Those amendments were approved 33-6. The bill itself passed, 38-1, and was sent back to the House for concurrence on the Senate changes.

Next, Sen. J.P. Morrell brought up Rep. Katrina Jackson’s HB 18, which cuts back state income tax credits for taxes paid to other states. He convinced 25 senators to support amending it to include the Earned Income Tax Credit increase which– as a stand-alone bill – they had previously approved. As he explained Sunday, “This means it will bypass the Ways to be Mean committee on the other side.”

Then it was time to consider the major revenue-raiser: HB 27 by Rep. Lance Harris. Senator Bret Allain (R-Franklin) brought the amendment to change the sales tax renewal from one-third to one half penny, and alter some of the provisions Revenue and Fiscal Affairs had added in an effort to raise more revenue than the House had been willing to do.

“This amendment also restores a sunset to these sales tax changes,” Allain explained. “But instead of five years, the sunset is 7 years from now, in 2025.”

On a vote of 36-2, that change was adopted.

Sen. Page Cortez (R-Lafayette), the chairman of the upper chamber’s Transportation Committee, then offered an amendment to increase the sales tax by another 4/10 of a cent, to be used for funding transportation mega-projects, such as a new I-10 bridge in Lake Charles, a new Mississippi River bridge in Baton Rouge, and elevating the remainder of LA 1 to Port Fourchon. It generated considerable discussion of the unfunded needs, which was Cortez’s point, though he ultimately withdrew the amendment.

Then Sen. Morrell proposed an amendment to charge sales tax on installation services. After all, he said, “Repair services are required to charge sales tax. Installation services do not. Based on information gathered by the Department of Revenue over the past two years, this will generate another $25-million in revenue.”

Further, Morrell explained, “This is where we could find the funds to increase the EITC. We know sales tax disproportionately impacts our poor, but in order to give tax relief to our working poor, we have to pay for it. Let’s be responsible and fund something we think is a priority.”

The amendment passed 22-15, and then the full Senate gave a 29-9 nod to HB 27.

The House, which has dominated the division for the past several seasons, will have both the budget and HB 27 in their starting lineup for the last day of the session. Will they throw beanballs at the Senate compromise offerings, or try to send the whole thing into more extra innings? Or will we all be able to enact — in the words of the late, great George Carlin — “the purpose of the game, which is to go home”?

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