State Sen. J.P. Morrell

State Sen. J.P. Morrell makes an impassioned speech in favor of a constitutional amendment exempting diapers and feminine hygiene products from sales tax on May 8, 2019.

At one point Wednesday night, Senate Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Chairman J.P. Morrell jokingly compared the meeting to the “red wedding,” a famously violent sequence from the Game of Thrones TV show.

And for several tax and spending measures favored by House members, it was a bit of a bloodbath. A bid by Rep. Lance Harris, R-Alexandria, for an early rollback of the temporary 0.45 percent sales tax that sealed last year’s budget deal was voted down 6-2.

Rep. Rick Edmonds, R-Baton Rouge, brought a bill that would limit general fund spending to 98 percent of the official revenue estimate, only to have it quickly deferred without objection. The measure had gotten through the Senate Finance Committee the previous night.

And a proposed constitutional amendment by Rep. Mark Abraham, R-Lake Charles, that he said would let governments trade future tax revenue from manufacturers for up-front payments, was shot down as lawmakers marveled at the tall stack of red cards turned in by opponents, including a number of tax assessors from across the state. Abraham said it would help local officials fund needed capital investments without borrowing, though senators said it could lead to legal and financial problems for local governments.

Throughout the legislative process, Harris argued for his tax cut by pointing to the $308 million state surplus as evidence that government is “extracting too much money from the taxpayer’s pocket.”

“I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with surpluses,” he said Wednesday. “I think the taxpayers deserve a tax break.”

But Sen. Eddie Lambert, R-Gonzales, noted the revenue estimates lawmakers use to craft the state budget are imprecise, arguing it’s good to have a cushion. He also said tax revenue is necessary to address $14 billion in needed infrastructure improvements.

Harris also said rolling back the temporary tax would put pressure on the next legislature to enact the structural tax reform that so many lawmakers and good-government groups believe is needed in Louisiana.

But Morrell said legislators already have tried to do tax reform during an atmosphere of crisis and failed, mentioning the last fiscal session in 2017 as a “real opportunity.” Perhaps trying again during the next term, with relative fiscal stability, might produce better results, he suggested.

“You will have the opportunity; I will not,” said Morrell, who has reached his term limit. “It was a temporary tax, but we’re trying to build a bridge to something else.”

Staff Writer

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.