BATON ROUGE — Gov. John Bel Edwards called on lawmakers Monday to use Louisiana’s “rainy day” fund to help close a $304 million deficit, saying refusal to tap the savings account would inflict unnecessary pain on people who rely on state programs and services.
The Democratic governor spoke to a joint session of the House and Senate on the opening day of a special session to rebalance the budget, the third special session on finances he’s called since he took office 13 months ago.
“We gather here with a critical mission and common purpose, simply put, to stabilize the state budget in a responsible way while adequately funding the programs and services the people of Louisiana consider to be priorities,” Edwards said.
Louisiana’s lawmakers trudged back for the 10-day session — which began a day before Valentine’s Day and will end shortly before Mardi Gras — readying for a philosophical struggle over how to rebalance the state’s $27 billion operating budget for the financial year that ends June 30.
Unemployment has driven personal income, business and sales taxes below expectations, opening up the budget gap.
Edwards’ proposal to rebalance the state’s spending plans would cut about $60 million from agencies and use $240 million in reserves and other financing to eliminate the remaining shortfall.
Colleges, prisons, K-12 public schools, the TOPS college tuition program and the state child welfare agency would be shielded.
Cuts would fall on the privatized charity hospital services, medical school training programs, roadwork, outreach services for the homeless, economic development marketing and the Office of Juvenile Justice. Dollars for supplies, travel and equipment would be reduced.
Taxes can’t be raised under the session parameters set by the governor, but lawmakers can consider fee hikes if they would prefer that to cuts.
Democrats appear to be largely on board with the governor’s plan, but some GOP lawmakers say it contains too many short-
term fixes. They want to see more permanent spending reductions, saying state government has grown too large.
A central debate involves whether to tap into Louisiana’s Budget Stabilization Fund, known as the rainy day fund. Edwards proposes using nearly $120 million from the savings account to avoid deeper cuts, but House Republican leaders are reluctant.
“Not using the Budget Stabilization Fund in my view would be a mistake,” the governor said. “Not using the Budget Stabilization Fund would inflict more pain upon Louisianans than is necessary or advisable.”
Tapping the fund requires support from two-thirds of House and Senate members, a vote that senators believe they can reach but that appears questionable in the House.
“We’re at a point in this state where we’re going to have to cut programs. We’re going to have to have a discussion about that,” said Rep. Lance Harris, leader of the House GOP delegation. “I want to look at every single option, leave no stone unturned, before I look at voting for using rainy day.”
Edwards said he’s open to other ideas, but in comments clearly aimed at the GOP, he asked lawmakers to skip partisan politics in their negotiations.
“It is counterproductive to our shared mission to constantly criticize and oppose without offering a viable alternative,” the governor said.
Sen. Norby Chabert, R-Houma, supports use of the rainy day fund, but wants other adjustments to the plan offered by Edwards.
“I’m glad he struck a tone of willing to compromise,” Chabert said.
It’s the state’s 15th midyear budget gap in nine years. Last month, Edwards and lawmakers closed a more than $300 million deficit with savings from hiring and spending freezes, postponed Medicaid payments and cuts to colleges.
During the session, senators also will debate one nonfinancial issue: whether to oust one of their own.
Sens. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge, and Sharon Hewitt, R-Slidell, filed legislation to try to expel Sen. Troy Brown, D-Geismar, from the chamber. Brown has pleaded no contest twice to domestic abuse charges over the past year and served jail time last month. He has refused to resign.
Claitor said he expects to have enough votes to remove Brown from his seat. Efforts to kill the legislation to oust Brown failed, with only three votes in favor Monday night. No one has been expelled from the Senate since 1981.
Brown’s lawyer didn’t respond to a phone call Monday. The senator has said he is in anger-management counseling and believes expulsion is too extreme a punishment.
The session must end by Feb. 22.