Analysis: Budget Release Boosts Tension At Louisiana Capitol

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Release of Gov. John Bel Edwards' worst-case-scenario budget appeared to do little to thaw frosty relations between Louisiana's Democratic governor and some Republican lawmakers about taxes and government spending.

A palpable sense of irritation from both sides ran throughout last week's budget hearing, as Louisiana's elected leaders seem unable — or unwilling — to negotiate an end to the constant cycles of financial uncertainty for the state.

Tension and mistrust coursed through the question-and-answer exchanges, as accusations were lodged about the spreading of misinformation and the intractability of people claiming they want to stabilize Louisiana's budget and move on to larger policy debates.

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The governor and House Republican leaders so far haven't reached a deal to hold a February special session on taxes to address a $1 billion budget gap that looms on July 1 when temporary sales taxes expire.

Edwards unveiled a $25.3 billion operating budget that would account for the loss of all the money, without the replacement taxes he wants. The spending plan would end many of Louisiana's safety-net health programs for the poor, elderly and disabled and strip 80 percent of the financing for the TOPS program that helps students pay for college.

The governor's presentation to lawmakers was a public scolding, targeted at House Republicans who blocked tax recommendations Edwards has pushed to stabilize state finances.

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Edwards told the lawmakers their "day of reckoning" was at hand. He reminded them they haven't voted for permanent financing sources to pay for existing government programs — and also haven't offered a detailed plan for cuts. He noted they ignored a task force's recommendations for long-term solutions.

"I was promised, more importantly the people of Louisiana were promised, that those (temporary taxes) would serve as a bridge until the 2017 fiscal session. But when the Legislature had the opportunity to dive deep into the budget and make necessary reforms, with the benefit of recommendations from a task force you created expressly for this purpose, you did not take it," Edwards told the Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget.

The governor said he'd consider revenue proposals besides the tax ideas he's offered, but he made sure to point out he hadn't received any.

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"I do not have a plan or any part of a plan from House leadership that addresses this cliff," Edwards said. "I cannot negotiate with myself."

GOP lawmakers questioned if Edwards was really interested in negotiating — or was stubbornly pursuing one course of action only, passing replacement taxes, rather than considering ways to shrink the footprint of state government.

Rep. Rick Edmonds, a Baton Rouge Republican, said the governor didn't seem flexible in budget negotiations last year, because he refused to lessen state spending.

"It's high time that we move forward together. I do agree with that," he told Edwards. But he added about flexibility: "Maybe you see none of it in our side, but I think that we've had a difficult time seeing some of it in your side as well."

Sen. Sharon Hewitt, a Slidell Republican considering a run for governor against Edwards next year, objected to Edwards taking credit for avoiding college cuts this year. She said his budget proposal didn't fully fund TOPS. The dollars were added in negotiations with lawmakers.

"That victory lap that you're taking, I think we share that as well," said Hewitt, who voted against the final version of the budget.

Hewitt also said Edwards hasn't done enough to curb state expenses, and she questioned the governor's claim that he's cut more than $600 million since taking office in 2016.

"I'm having a hard time reproducing those numbers," Hewitt said.

Edwards replied: "I'll give you the list. But it is simple arithmetic."

Even as Edwards chastised Republicans for failing to have a plan, House GOP leader Lance Harris of Alexandria noted Edwards' tax recommendations wouldn't cover the full budget gap.

Revenue Secretary Kimberly Robinson told Harris: "We have a little more work to do."

That sentiment could sum up negotiations between the Edwards administration and House Republicans, since the exchanges in the budget hearing didn't seem to advance the deal-making.

-By Melinda Deslatte, Associated Press

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