BATON ROUGE, LA (KSLA) - Jeers and boos erupted on the floor of the Louisiana House of Representatives Monday night as the clock read 11:59. With seconds to go in the second special session of the year, lawmakers had not agreed on a way to solve the state's budget problems.
When the clock struck midnight, they were out of time. After working for almost two weeks to find a solution to the $648 million budget shortfall, the Governor says state legislators failed.
"This was a sad night for the people of our great state," said Governor John Bel Edwards. "It's the height of irresponsibility."
Lawmakers were able to pass an operating budget that relies on $540 million in additional taxes. Since legislators couldn't come up with a compromise on how to raise that money, however, the budget is chronically underfunded and includes deep cuts to many state services.
The TOPS scholarship program faces cuts of up to 30 percent, and funding for higher education is at risk of being cut by tens of millions of dollars.
The Louisiana Department of Health would be fully funded, as the budget shields the department from any cuts.
What some called the financial fiasco at the capitol was due mainly to the fact that lawmakers couldn't agree on how to fund the government.
Two years ago, the legislature temporarily bumped the state sales tax rate in Louisiana from 4% to 5% to fix budget problems they were struggling with back then. That increase expires on July 1, opening a big hole in the next year's budget.
Lawmakers spent much of the last two weeks debating on how much of those expiring taxes should be renewed.
In the end, two bills were being considered. The first, from Rep. Walt Leger, D-New Orleans, would have kept half of the expiring taxes and raised about $500 million. The bill had support from the Senate, the Governor, and many Democrats in the House. However, some House Republicans objected, saying they wanted lower taxes and less spending.
The other bill, from Rep. Lance Harris, R-Alexandria, would have kept a third of the expiring tax and raised about $400 million. This tax plan had support from the GOP, but Democrats said it didn't raise enough money and would result in painful cuts to state programs.
Neither of the two bills could get enough votes needed to pass and both failed in the final minutes of the session.
In perhaps what was described as the most dramatic moment of the special session, bipartisan members of the House of Representatives attempted a last-ditch effort to save the session by forcing a second vote on the Democrat-backed tax plan.
But that vote never happened as House Speaker Taylor Barras, R-New Iberia, and Rep. Alan Seabaugh, R-Shreveport, blocked the attempt.
"I rise in opposition to this bill. We've already voted on it, and yes, I am trying to run the clock out," said Seabaugh while speaking on the House floor as the final seconds ticked away.
Many lawmakers expressed their frustration by booing and groaning.
Governor Edwards says he will call another special session for lawmakers to try to pass a tax plan. He hasn't announced the dates, but he promises it will be shorter than the two-week session that just ended.
"We have to do better," said Edwards. "This is not going to be the budget. It is unworthy of the people of Louisiana."
Edwards could veto the legislature's budget and ask them to pass a new one in the next session, but he hasn't said whether he plans on doing so.
Lawmakers must come up with a solution before July 1, when the existing sales taxes expire and the new fiscal year begins.