Lawmakers describe rough session

Rep. Mark Abraham (left), R-Lake Charles, and Sen. Ronnie Johns (right), R-Sulphur, spoke during a men’s breakfast at Greater St. Mary Missionary Baptist Church on Saturday, July 21, 2018. 

Two state lawmakers from Southwest Louisiana spoke on Saturday of the obstacles and roadblocks the Legislature faced over several months before they reached a compromise during the third special session and avoided potentially catastrophic cuts to higher education and health care.

During a men’s breakfast at Greater St. Mary Missionary Baptist Church, Sen. Ronnie Johns, R-Sulphur, and Rep. Mark Abraham, R-Lake Charles, discussed the June renewal of a temporary 0.45-cent sales tax. The tax, which lasts until 2025, was approved despite objections from some lawmakers who felt the state needed to curb its spending.

The renewal was part of a 1-cent sales tax that lawmakers approved in 2016 and was set to expire June 30. Before the session began, lawmakers were anticipating an estimated $1.4 billion shortfall if the tax were not renewed.

Johns, who sits on the Senate Finance Committee, said the Southwest Louisiana delegation wasn’t “part of the obstruction that happened in Baton Rouge this year.” During the first two special sessions, a group of lawmakers derailed attempts to reach a compromise on the temporary sales tax.

“We tried like heck to be part of the solution,” Johns said. “We worked very hard to put party politics and partisanship aside and come to some kind of an agreement.”

Johns didn’t mince words when describing the environment at the Capitol — where work began with an unsuccessful first special session in February and lasted until June.

“I got a glimpse of what hell looks like,” he said.

Abraham, who sits on the House Appropriations Committee, said the “underlying theme” of the special sessions was whether the state has a problem with revenue or spending. He said he disagrees with those who think the state has a spending problem.

While the state tries to keep fraud and abuse to a minimum, Abraham said there’s no way it can ever be completely eliminated.

“There’s waste in everything,” he said. “There’s waste in business and government.”

Johns said he would not consider cutting higher education because it has seen reductions since 2008. He said the TOPS program will likely see more debate because it has grown from roughly $26 million when it was created many years ago, to more than $300 million today.

Abraham said some House Republicans wouldn’t budge on the idea that Louisiana doesn’t need additional revenue, and they could pass a budget that makes cuts without hurting critical agencies. The initial House-approved budget cut $500 million, and while it fully funded TOPS and education, it severely hurt nursing homes and health care.

“This is what a massive cut looks like,” he said. “We had plenty of opportunity to say, ‘We can solve this budget with not any hurt to anyone.’ But 104 members of the House passed that budget that devastated those areas.”

Once the spending plan made it to the Senate, they restored the funding for nursing homes and health care, but made cuts to TOPS and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.

“Not one person could make cuts to the budget that didn’t devastate some aspect of our community,” Abraham said. “That’s the reality.”

The Tax Foundation, a think tank based out of Washington, D.C., ranked Louisiana as having the 45th-lowest tax burden in the nation, according to 2012 numbers. The state’s tax burden increased to 27th in the nation after the additional penny sales tax was approved.

With the new temporary 0.45-cent sales tax, Abraham said, that burden — which includes sales, property and income taxes — could drop.

“We don’t have high taxes here, and that’s what people seem to miss,” he said.

Abraham also spoke of the difficulty lawmakers have experienced in trying to cut any of the billions of dollars in dedicated funds.

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