Less than 24 hours after the Legislature adjourned its special session last week lawmakers serving on the budget committee gathered again at the Capitol to hear Gov. John Bel Edwards’ spending proposal for the next fiscal year.
There will be no rest for the politically weary, with just 40 days separating the close of the special session and the opening of the regular session on April 10.
Once again a budget deficit, this time in the $400 million range, will take center stage in the coming session for the fiscal year that begins July 1. During the special session that concluded last week, lawmakers had to close a $304 million gap for the current fiscal year.
The governor’s proposal for the next budget cuts short funding for the TOPS scholarship program and reduces money for health care services for the poor. Lawmakers, however, will have opportunities to increase revenue for the 2017-2018 budget, chiefly through tax changes.
“This is not the budget proposal I want to present and should serve as a starting point for the Legislature,” Edwards said last week, adding, “My goal is to fully fund critical priorities of our state, most notably the TOPS program and transportation, but we cannot do that without making reforms and without additional revenue.”
What those reforms might be is unknown, but the administration intends to rely upon recommendations drafted by a budget and tax task force that met throughout last year.
During an interview on The LaPolitics Report podcast, Revenue Secretary Kim Robinson said the governor’s fleshed-out plan, to be delivered at a later date, will carry with it very specific directions.
“The governor looked at a menu of options last year because we knew that raising revenue was not going to be popular,” Robinson said. “We wanted to give the Legislature options to fill what was needed in terms of the budget deficit.”
She added, “This year we are going in with a different perspective … I think you’ll see us come forward with a proposal that says these are these things we think we should do. But we’re always open to suggestions from lawmakers.”
Jan Moller, the director of the left-leaning Louisiana Budget Project, found aspects to cheer and criticize in the governor’s 2017-18 budget proposal.
He said it cuts money for public colleges and universities, reduces funding for safety net hospitals and fails to keep up with the rising cost of K-12 education.
“Nor does it address the long backlog of needs that have gone neglected in recent years: Need-based college aid, early childhood education for children from birth to 3, home- and community-based services for people with disabilities and basic upkeep of roads, bridges and college campuses,” Moller added.
Yet he also offered this take: “Compared to what we’ve seen in recent years, this is a solid and responsible budget plan that tries to limit the pain of cuts to state services given the current revenue picture. But it doesn’t come close to taking Louisiana where it needs to go and leaves too many of our people behind.”
Casting a long shadow over the approaching regular session is $1.2 billion in temporary taxes that come off of the books in 2018.
The governor has said he hopes lawmakers will address that financial challenge fully during the regular session, even as conservatives in the Republican-controlled Legislature have already voiced concerns about increasing taxes.