House Ways & Means Committee chairman Neil Abramson, D-New Orleans, during Wednesday’s meeting in which a key tax bill to Gov. John Bel Edwards’ plan to plug a $600 million shortfall in next year’s budget was killed. Photo by Samuel Carter Karlin

By Samuel Carter Karlin

BATON ROUGE — Louisiana lawmakers voted to kill a key part of Gov. John Bel Edwards’ revenue-raising package Wednesday, throwing a wrench in his plan to close the state’s $600 million budget deficit.

Democrat chairman of the House tax-writing committee, Rep. Neil Abramson, who has been at odds with the Edwards administration from the start, cast the tie-breaking vote and the measure failed, 10-9.

Lawmakers on the House Ways and Means Committee so far have approved more than $200 million in tax hikes as they move toward the June 23 adjournment of the year’s second special session. Members had a marathon meeting Wednesday to consider more than a dozen tax bills.

Abramson, a Democrat from New Orleans, sided with the GOP hardliners when he voted against House Bill by Rep. Rob Shadoin, a Republican from Ruston. House Bill 11 would have increased taxes on some high-income earners and would have raised enough money to put lawmakers at roughly the halfway mark in Edwards’ plan.

But the vote came after Kenner Republican Rep. Julie Stokes amended the bill to make it part of a “reform” package to lower income tax rates to a flat tax. Stokes’ three-bill package would raise $73.4 million by eliminating deductions on personal income tax.

Stokes argued that Louisiana is among the lowest-taxed states in the country. The state ranks No. 1 in “Tax Freedom Day,” which measures how long it takes for taxpayers to make enough money to pay for their taxes in a year, meaning the state has a low tax burden.

There are 15 days left for legislators to either raise revenue to fill the gap or to slash programs and agencies like the popular tuition-paying scholarship TOPS, safety-net hospitals for the poor and uninsured, K-12 schools and higher education. Lawmakers are one-third of the way to closing the deficit.

But many House Republicans have decided against tax increases, aiming as low as $200 million to plug some money back into TOPS and hospitals.

And while many House Republicans have put down their foot to additional tax increases, people representing various state agencies and programs pleaded with the committee to raise money for disability services, K-12 and higher education.

“My goal right now is life over death,” said Bogalusa Democrat Rep. Malinda White of the rural and partner hospitals in her district that face closure.

“We can’t sit on the sidelines and do nothing,” she said in an interview. “We have to give people options” on revenue-raising measures.“

Some Republicans on the House Ways and Means Committee, where tax bills must originate, are unwilling to approve individual tax increases without a “reform” package, citing the damage already done to the state’s tax code by attempting to fill budget deficits with bad policies.

“I’m looking at each individual bills’ policy value,” said Rep. Chris Broadwater, “not (its) dollar value.”

Broadwater, R-Hammond, said he is hoping for measures this special session that line up with what is expected to be an overhaul of the state’s tax code next year.

The House is scheduled to take up tax hikes bills Thursday. The Senate, which must wait for House-generated revenue bills, has recessed until Monday.

Story appeared in The Eunice News