FILE - Louisiana State Capitol

The Louisiana State Capitol in Baton Rouge, La.

The state House of Representatives voted 73-21 on Thursday for an early rollback of the temporary sales tax implemented to cement last year’s budget deal.

In a surprise move, Rep. Walt Leger, a New Orleans Democrat who said he did not support House Bill 599, still managed to amend it to dedicate 0.05 percent of the 0.45 percent tax to early childhood education.

Under the amended bill, the 0.05 percent would stay in place until the currently scheduled expiration in 2025. The rest would be reduced gradually until being eliminated by July 1, 2023.

The tax cut doesn’t begin to take effect until the 2020-21 budget year, so lawmakers don’t need to reduce spending in the currently pending budget to pay for the tax cut. The change would cost the state about $87 million the first year and increase to $392 million by the 2023-24 budget year, or about $914 million over five years, according to Legislative Fiscal Office estimates prepared before Leger’s amendment was added.

Rep. Lance Harris, the Alexandria Republican who sponsored the bill, said the state’s current surplus shows the government is taking in too much money.

“It’s time, if we’re looking at excesses, to return some of that money to your constituents,” he said.

Rep. Alan Seabaugh, R-Shreveport, agreed, saying surpluses are a bad thing because they indicate taxes are too high. Surpluses can only be used for certain expenses, such as coastal restoration, infrastructure, paying down debt and shoring up the “rainy day” fund.

Several lawmakers argued for maintaining the hard-fought compromise achieved last year and worried about the impact on health care and higher education, which tend to be first on the chopping block when cuts are needed. Rep. Patrick Connick, R-Marrero, said he feared a return to the fiscal “chaos” of former Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration.

Rep. James Armes, D-Leesville, argued for the need to chip away at the state’s retirement debts.

“I hate taxes more than anybody,” Armes said. “I didn’t want to do this [vote for the temporary tax], but we had to.”

Though Harris suggested government was spending too much and growing too large, when pressed he did not suggest specific areas to reduce spending. He said eliminating the temporary sales tax early would put pressure on the next legislature to enact structural tax reform.

“If this body wanted to achieve structural tax reform, we would have achieved it by now,” Leger said.

Though Leger voted for the bill and argued for his amendment, he still argued against the bill’s overall goal. He pointed out that the current surplus is driven by higher income tax collections and changes in federal tax law, not sales taxes.

When the bill was in committee, Kim Robinson, secretary of the Department of Revenue, argued against the bill on behalf of Gov. John Bel Edwards’ administration. She said Louisiana has the fifth-lowest tax burden of any state, according to the Tax Foundation.

Robinson argued that abandoning the compromise reached after multiple special sessions risked losing the state’s newfound fiscal stability, after only just getting off Moody’s negative watch list.

Staff Reporter

David Jacobs is a Baton Rouge-based award-winning journalist who has written about government, politics, business and culture in Louisiana for almost 15 years. He joined The Center Square in 2018.