Edwards Expects Support To Build For Second Special Session
BATON ROUGE (AP) — Facing resistance to another round of tax increases, Gov. John Bel Edwards said he believes lawmakers will determine Louisiana needs additional money to protect critical programs as they struggle to craft next year's budget.
Edwards, a Democrat in office since January, reached his 100th day as governor Tuesday still grappling with deep financial troubles. He's trying to rally support for a special legislative session to begin in June, for lawmakers to raise additional taxes to bail out the budget for the financial year that begins July 1.
"I happen to believe that at the end of the day once the Legislature finishes its effort putting together a budget for next fiscal year that is short $750 million in state general fund that they are going to conclude in sufficient numbers that more revenue is necessary," the governor said in an interview with The Associated Press.
INHERITED BUDGET WOES
Edwards inherited the worst budget troubles facing Louisiana in nearly three decades. He called a special session to raise taxes and make cuts. But legislative action didn't close all the gaps.
To deal with the remaining shortfall in next year's budget, Edwards proposes steep reductions to the TOPS free college tuition program, safety net hospitals for the poor, K-12 public schools and college campuses.
He's hoping lawmakers — who can't raise taxes in the regular session that ends June 6 — will gather ahead of the July 1 start of the budget year and support tax hikes to stop those cuts from happening.
"I don't want to sound overly troubled about where we are," the governor said. "A lot of work was done. It was just not enough."
TAX SESSION TIMING
After raising more than $1.2 billion in taxes for next year, some Republican lawmakers, particularly in the House, are reticent about additional taxes.
House Speaker Taylor Barras, R-New Iberia, thinks another special session will be necessary. But he suggested it might take longer than June to get consensus and it will need to be coupled with spending reform.
"As we go through the appropriations process if it's determined that we have shaved every department as much as we can shave them and they are living within what they can live with, does that give some momentum to seriously considering revenue? Possibly," Barras said.
While Edwards continues to negotiate on finances, he acknowledges the "intense focus" on the budget "consumes the oxygen," delaying other agenda items.
Plans to debate new financing for a multibillion-dollar backlog of roadwork and to do a widespread rewrite of state criminal sentencing laws will wait until 2017. But Edwards notes his biggest policy priority during the campaign, to expand Louisiana's Medicaid program, is on track to begin July 1.
In the current session, Edwards' efforts to give local school boards more control over the growth of charter schools have struggled to gain traction. His equal pay bill won support in the Senate but faces a tough road in the House. And his push to increase Louisiana's minimum wage is considered a long-shot in the majority Republican Legislature.
SOCIAL ISSUE DEBATES
The governor's drew national attention — but risked irritating GOP lawmakers — when he issued an executive order last week banning discrimination in state government based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
The order's timing, Edwards said, was about ensuring it contained a workable exemption for state contractors that are religious organizations. He said it had little to do with responding to controversies around the country.
"I don't believe we should discriminate against anyone for any reason, which is why the carve-out (for religious organizations) I think was important," he said.
The governor said he's not certain if he'll back proposals to enact a state law protecting Louisiana's LGBT residents from discrimination, saying he supports the concept but needs to review the language in the specific bills.
With the first 100 days behind him, Edwards said he remains optimistic about digging out of the financial mess: "We are going to stabilize and move forward in a manner where everything isn't contentious."
– by AP Reporter Melinda Deslatte