Edwards calls lawmakers into special session

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BATON ROUGE — Spending cuts, account transfers and fee increases for government services will be on the table, but tax hikes will not during a 10-day special legislative session to close a $304 million budget deficit, under parameters issued Friday by Gov. John Bel Edwards.

Edwards released his official “call” for the session, which is slated to begin at 6:30 p.m. on Feb. 13. Time to make decisions will be short. Lawmakers must wrap up work by Feb. 22, a day sooner than originally planned. Edwards said he hoped the session could end early.

No tax bills can be debated as lawmakers look for ways to rebalance Louisiana’s $27 billion operating budget for the financial year that ends June 30.

“The people of Louisiana are expecting us to put politics aside and solve this problem, and I am committed to being a partner with the Legislature to make this happen,” Edwards said in a statement.

The Democratic governor will release his budget-rebalancing proposal Monday.

A few things already are known about his approach: He said it will rely on using $119 million from the state’s rainy day fund, an idea that faces resistance and that is shaping up to be the key debate of the session. The hurdle to tapping into the savings account is high, requiring support from two-thirds of the House and Senate.

“The fund was established for this very purpose, and given how deep these cuts will be without it, I am confident the Legislature will support this effort until we can make the necessary reforms to our state’s budgeting practices,” Edwards said.

To close the rest of the gap, Edwards will propose $185 million in cuts that he said will fall across a broad spectrum of state government.

The governor said he’ll recommend cuts to the health department, agencies led by statewide elected officials, the state judicial budget and spending on legislative expenses. His proposal will spare K-12 education, state prisons and the Department of Children and Family Services from cuts. He said he will seek to “minimize cuts” to public colleges, the privatized charity hospital services and health programs for the elderly and people with disabilities.

Edwards won’t seek fee hikes, but he’s allowing lawmakers to consider them if they would prefer that to some of his cut proposals.

House Republican leaders questioned the need for a special session, saying the governor and the Legislature’s joint budget committee had the authority to make the cuts to eliminate the deficit. Edwards said that budget-cutting authority was too limited and would force slashing to fall heavily on public colleges and health services.

The special session comes less than two months ahead of a regular legislative session expected to center on a rewrite of Louisiana’s tax laws, to help stabilize state finances.

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