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Edwards to unveil plan to close budget gap

by Associated Press

BATON ROUGE — Gov. John Bel Edwards’ administration will unveil its proposal for eliminating Louisiana’s $304 million deficit to lawmakers Friday, a budget-rebalancing plan that will hinge on the governor’s plan to call a special legislative session for mid-February.

“It will provide insight into the approach the administration would like to take,” Edwards spokesman Richard Carbo said of the ideas that will be released to the Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget.

The plan will include cuts the Democratic governor can make on his own, reductions the joint budget committee can enact and proposals that need the full Legislature’s support to take effect, Carbo said.

The Governor’s Proposal

Edwards’ package of recommendations still was being drafted Monday, but it’s certain to include use of as much as $119 million from Louisiana’s “rainy day” fund, which the governor’s administration has said will be integral to closing the gap.

It wasn’t yet settled, however, whether the proposal will include ways to raise gap-closing revenues, such as increasing fees that people pay for services, or if the rest of the proposal will center on cuts.

“That’s under consideration given the input from several legislators,” Carbo said. “There have been requests to include the ability to raise revenue, but that decision has not been made yet.”

The $27 billion state operating budget for the financial year that ends June 30 must be rebalanced to eliminate the deficit. The Legislature’s joint budget committee is expected to officially recognize the deficit Friday, which starts a 30-day clock closing the gap — or a special session must be called.

Special Session Disagreement

Louisiana’s lawmakers are split on the need for a deficit-closing legislative session and the wisdom of using the state “rainy day” fund to help bail out the budget as Edwards wants. They are expected to continue their debate on the issue Friday.

The Edwards administration says constitutional limits on the governor and the joint budget committee’s ability to cut spending leave public colleges and health services with the brunt of the cuts. A special session would allow lawmakers to cut more broadly across agencies.

Republican House leaders want the governor to offer a proposal for closing the gap without a special session, saying such a session carries costs for the state.

“Why would we come back when we’re already in a money pinch?” said Rep. Lance Harris, head of the House Republican delegation.

GOP Senate President John Alario and other Senate leaders prefer a special session, saying that would help lessen the cuts that fall on higher education and health programs.

Competing Ideas

Harris, R-Alexandria, offered the first budget-rebalancing proposal last week. It could be done without needing a special session, without using the rainy day fund and with protections for college campuses, by levying $147 million of the cuts on the health department. Other cuts would fall on roadwork, prisons, K-12 education and state-financed construction projects.

The proposal drew outcries from groups targeted for reductions. The Edwards administration said the cuts would devastate health programs for the poor, the mentally ill and people with disabilities.

Senate Finance Chairman Eric LaFleur, D-Ville Platte, called Harris’ plan a “starting point” for conversations, but said he doesn’t believe a majority of lawmakers would support the health cuts Harris recommends. He said senators are “ready to make cuts” and want to target some dollars that agencies have socked away in savings accounts that lawmakers didn’t know existed.

“There’s all kinds of creative ways to make it happen,” LaFleur said. “I do think it would be easier and we would have the most flexibility if we were in a legislative session.”

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