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Special session comes with a price tag

by Associated Press

BATON ROUGE — Louisiana lawmakers resistant to the idea of a deficit-closing special session have raised concerns about paying for the Legislature’s return to Baton Rouge amid continuing shortfalls. But the actual cost of such a gathering isn’t certain.

House Clerk Alfred “Butch” Speer said a rough estimate of the cost for the House and Senate to be in session ranges between $50,000 and $60,000 a day. That means a two-and-half-week session could top $1 million.

The price tag, however, can shrink depending on legislative leaders’ decisions on overtime payments, printing needs and other variables. No one can really tally the cost of a special session until it’s over, Speer said.

Gov. John Bel Edwards intends to call a mid-February special session to close Louisiana’s $304 million midyear deficit for the budget year that began July 1. Edwards wants to use the state’s “rainy day” fund and make cuts to the $27 billion operating budget to eliminate the gap.

Some Republican lawmakers, particularly in the House, say they’d prefer the Democratic governor and the Legislature’s joint budget committee make the cuts without calling everyone back to the state Capitol.

They’ve pointed to costs that such a special session would carry when Louisiana is already pinching pennies.

“As frugal as we’re trying to be — and, of course, we’re still working on the 10 percent legislative cut that we implemented on July 1 — so any money I can save by not being here certainly would be our preference,” said House Speaker Taylor Barras, R-New Iberia.

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

“The cost of the session I think is greatly outweighed by the ability to spread the cuts in all aspects of the budget,” said Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne, the governor’s chief budget adviser.

The only definite costs of a session, Speer said, are the daily rate paid to each lawmaker for every day the Legislature is in session, along with mileage paid for one round trip per week to the Capitol. The $150 per diem paid to lawmakers will cost more than $21,000 a day during the special session. The mileage is certain, but harder to estimate.

“After that, it all gets mushy,” Speer said.

If only a few bills are drafted, for example, that will limit printing costs that can sometimes carry hefty price tags. Also, when the special session dates are set, the House speaker and Senate president will decide if they will pay overtime to staff working extra hours.

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