Feb. 14, 2017 01:58 PM
With opening day formalities behind them, lawmakers and Gov. John Bel Edwards sat down Tuesday in hopes of negotiating a deal to close Louisiana's $304 million deficit during a 10-day budget-rebalancing special session.

The Democratic governor met Tuesday morning with top House and Senate leaders in closed-door talks, a day after he spoke to a joint session of the Legislature and urged them to consider compromise. Another similar meeting was scheduled for the afternoon.

The central point of contention in rebalancing the $27 billion operating budget for the financial year that ends June 30 is whether to use Louisiana's "rainy day" fund to help close the gap — and if so, how much to take from it.

Edwards wants to use the full one-third available, nearly $120 million. Senate leaders support that approach. But House Republican leaders are reticent to tap the savings account at all, saying the state needs to permanently shrink its spending to better match its income.

Use of the rainy day fund requires a two-thirds vote of the House and Senate.

With only about four months left in the budget year, refusal to use the savings account would cause deep, unnecessary cuts to programs and services, Edwards told lawmakers in his session opening speech.

"That's not fear-mongering, a scare tactic or an exaggeration. It is reality," he said.

Attending the meeting with Edwards were 13 lawmakers, according to the governor's office, including Senate President John Alario; House Speaker Taylor Barras; the chairmen of the budget committees; leaders of the black caucus, Republican delegations and Democratic caucus; and others.

In the afternoon, the Senate Finance Committee considers the rainy day fund legislation, while the House Appropriations Committee starts sifting through cut proposals. The House committee will be looking to go beyond the reductions recommended by Edwards.

Alario, R-Westwego, said he supported using the rainy day fund but wouldn't push to advance that legislation through the full Senate until "we give the House an opportunity to offer some legitimate cuts."

Rep. Lance Harris, head of the House GOP delegation, who attended Tuesday's meeting, said the state needs to start looking at where to eliminate programs to lessen spending.

"I want to look at every single option, leave no stone unturned, before I look at voting for using rainy day," he said.

Edwards' proposal to eliminate the deficit would cut about $60 million from agencies, use nearly $120 million from the rainy day fund and tap into another $120 million in tobacco tax revenue, reserves and other available financing.

Colleges, prisons, K-12 public schools, the TOPS college tuition program and the state child welfare agency would be shielded. The largest cuts would fall in the state health department.

Tuesday is the second Valentine's Day in a row that lawmakers have spent in a special session called by Edwards to deal with financial problems.

"I'm sorry about that," the governor told lawmakers Monday night.