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Edwards releases budget proposal without taxes, only cuts

BATON ROUGE — Gov. John Bel Edwards’ administration presented its doomsday budget to lawmakers Saturday, showing the widespread cuts that would be levied across public colleges and health care services without new money for the state treasury.

Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards, center, unveils his proposals for balancing Louisiana’s budget, including a list of tax increases for legislative consideration, during a news conference, Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2016, in Baton Rouge, La. Joining Edwards are Revenue Secretary Kimberly Robinson, left, and Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne. AP Photo/Melinda Deslatte

Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne said the slashing needed to balance next year’s budget would be “disastrous” if Louisiana cuts more than $2 billion in state financing to close its budget gap, rather than raise taxes as Edwards wants.

The presentation came on the eve of a special legislative session beginning Sunday in which the Democratic governor wants lawmakers to boost taxes to avoid the cuts next year, as well as to help rebalance this year’s budget.

“This is now the wake-up call, the reality, the alarm sounding,” Dardenne, the governor’s chief financial adviser, told the Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget.

Without more money next year, the public school financing formula would be shielded from reductions in the 2016-17 fiscal year that begins July 1, but nearly every state agency would take hefty cuts under Edwards’ budget proposal.

Public colleges would lose $180 million in state financing, about 24 percent of the money they receive from the state. In addition, the TOPS free college tuition program would get $233 million less, leaving it with only about one-fifth the money needed to cover all students expected to be eligible to receive the aid.

Health care would take deep hits, losing nearly $800 million in state financing, a cut that would grow to $1.9 billion with the loss of federal matching dollars, according to the Edwards administration. That type of reduction would force closures of health services and programs on which the poor, elderly and disabled rely.

Sen. Regina Barrow, D-Baton Rouge, described the cuts as unrealistic, saying many state agencies have been forced repeatedly to shrink spending over the last eight years of budget gaps.

“I don’t see how we could survive and render any services to our citizens,” she said.

Even with the cuts, however, the state health department’s budget would grow because of the influx of $1.7 billion in federal money to pay for the expansion of Louisiana’s Medicaid program. Edwards wants the new coverage for the working poor to take effect July 1, saying the expansion would help the state save money in other health care areas.

Next year’s budget proposal was due to lawmakers Saturday under state law.

In a letter accompanying the proposal, Edwards stressed he didn’t want to make the types of cuts included in the document. But he said Louisiana doesn’t have “adequate state financial resources to properly fund the government services Louisiana residents expect and depend upon” without new tax revenue.

“This is NOT the budget I want passed but the budget I must submit to you based on my constitutional obligation to submit a balanced budget. To do otherwise would be dishonest about the state of Louisiana’s financial condition,” he said in the letter.

Republicans have shown resistance to tax hikes, including in Saturday’s meeting.

Rep. John Schroder, R-Covington, said he doesn’t want to boost taxes “unless I don’t have any other choice.” He said government should be made more efficient first and costs should be controlled.

“I will tell you honestly that most people want us to live within our means,” he said. “Most taxpayers in this state do not have confidence in our government that we’re spending money wisely and that we’re doing what we’re supposed to be doing.”

Ahead of tackling next year’s problem, Edwards and lawmakers must rebalance this year’s budget before the fiscal year ends June 30. The governor is proposing a mix of cuts, short-term fixes and tax increases to close a gap that ranges from $850 million to $950 million.

If lawmakers refuse to raise taxes, Edwards has said the short-term cuts could force college campuses to close mid-semester, shutter hospitals and damage health programs for the poor.

Minden Press-Herald

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