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Special session's final hours dominated by backroom budget negotiations

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NEW ORLEANS, LA (WVUE) -

Another special legislative session to tackle the ongoing budget crisis appears headed to a near deadline finish.

The session is mandated by law to end by midnight.

A budget bill for the fiscal year that begins July 1 was sent to a conference committee made up of House and Senate members Monday afternoon. By early evening both the House and Senate remained in recess as negotiations continued away from the chamber's floors.

The conference committee seeks to reach a compromise on a spending plan after the House rejected Senate amendments to House Bill 1, which is the budget to operate state government  for the 2018-2019 fiscal year. The Senate version of the $29 billion budget relies on $540 million in additional tax revenues, while the House bill assumes $400 million in new tax dollars.

Under the upper chamber’s amendments, one-half of the soon-to-expire fifth penny of the state sales tax would remain in place, while the House version of the bill retains only one-third of the temporary extra penny.

Democratic House Speaker Pro-Tempore Walt Leger of New Orleans urged his fellow House members to accept the Senate version.

"We should get this item checked off of our agenda right now. This is the version of the bill that we will be voting on if it's 11:45 tonight, it will be 11:45 tonight, but there is no reason for us to wait,” Leger said.

For a time, another GOP member in the House agreed with Leger.

"We have hashed and rehashed this thing for months. We've got $540 to $586 million from the Senate. We were around $400 with Rep. Harris. If you look at $400, where we were and $648 or $643, seems to me that the Senate has come up with a very good compromise,” said Rep. Robert Shadoin, R-Ruston.

But Republican House Appropriations Committee Chairman Cameron Henry of Metairie assured the body that if the conference committee negotiations did not result in a compromise ahead of the deadline for ending the session, he would allow a vote on his HB1.

"There is no greater guarantee in this building that at some point in time today you will vote on House Bill 1. House Bill 1, whether it's this one or another one, because I don't want to be here tomorrow or in seven days,” said Henry.

Before the vote to send the bill to the conference committee, Rep. Shadoin had a change of heart and fell in line with many other Republicans and withdrew his motion to concur in the Senate changes to the budget.

Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, favors the Senate’s version of the budget.

It would cut the state sales tax from 5% from 4.5% but still generate enough funds to nearly close the current budget gap of $648 million and also fund higher education, the popular TOPS Scholarship and critical health care services, including money for the private companies running state-owned hospitals.

Edwards also said the Senate’s budget plan, along with federal tax changes, would lower the tax burden for Louisiana residents by over $400 million starting July 1.

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