Edwards' Budget: 'What Falling Off The Cliff Looks Like'

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Only months away from the expiration of $1 billion in state sales taxes, Gov. John Bel Edwards released his worst-case-scenario budget Monday, a spending plan that would end many of Louisiana's safety-net health programs and strip 80 percent of the financing for the beloved TOPS program that helps students pay for college.

"I am confident that none of you will want to be sending this budget to my desk for approval," Edwards told the Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget. "I don't think it is possible to pass a budget, in fact, that makes cuts at this level."

The Democratic governor is required to submit a spending plan for the budget year starting July 1 that only accounts for the dollars expected to be available. The proposal doesn't include temporary sales taxes that expire when the new financial year begins that Edwards wants replaced with other taxes.

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"This is what falling off the cliff looks like," he said.

Louisiana's operating budget would fall from $28.1 billion this year to $25.3 billion next year with the loss of federal matching dollars and other revenue sources that would be eliminated with the state tax cuts proposed. Total expenditures across the package of budget bills would fall from $30.2 billion to $27.4 billion.

The state's child welfare agency, veterans affairs department, coastal protection agency, highway department and Louisiana National Guard would be shielded from cuts in the governor's budget recommendations. The K-12 public school financing formula also would be protected.

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But public college campuses, TOPS and health programs for the poor, elderly and disabled would face proposed deep reductions because they have the fewest protected financing sources.

About two-thirds of the $1 billion cut — $660 million — would hit health programs, ballooning to $2.3 billion with lost federal and other matching cash. TOPS, which cost about $291 million this school year, would lose $233 million of its financing for the next academic year. College campuses would take an additional $26 million reduction, and the Go Grants program that provides needs-based funding for students would be cut in half.

Sheriffs would receive less money for housing state prisoners. District attorneys would lose a state supplement they receive. Louisiana's judiciary and legislative agencies would take a reduction. State parks would lose some financing.

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The governor stressed he has no interest in seeing such a budget become reality, and he blamed lawmakers for having to present it.

Edwards wants to offset the expiring temporary taxes with a package of other taxes that could raise or maintain higher taxes on businesses and middle- and upper-income earners. House Republicans have blocked the ideas in previous legislative sessions.

"You chose to temporarily patch up the problem for 27 months. And the day of reckoning is at hand," Edwards said.

To pass a tax package this year would require a special session, and Edwards said he would only call one if he can reach an agreement in principle with House GOP leaders. So far, they haven't struck that deal. Negotiations continue. No one who opposed the tax legislation has offered a detailed proposal for cutting the full $1 billion, a point Edwards noted.

"For those of you who insist that we can cut our way out of this — identify the cuts," he said.

Lawmakers had expected the spending plan unveiled Monday would look grim.

"You can't cut a billion dollars without hurt," said Rep. Patricia Smith, a Baton Rouge Democrat.

Rep. Jack McFarland, a Winnfield Republican, anticipates lawmakers and the governor will reach an agreement to at least replace part of the expiring tax revenue.

"I don't believe that we're going to go in here and cut a billion dollars," McFarland said. "I don't think anybody has the stomach for it to happen."

But he also expects some reductions, saying he doesn't believe lawmakers will agree to offset the full billion dollars with taxes.

-By Melinda Deslatte, Associated Press

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