Louisiana leaders on Tuesday came one step closer to finding common ground in tense ongoing negotiations about how to address the state's looming $1 billion budget shortfall.
House Republicans, who have been the major opposition to Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, in the state's seemingly never-ending financial crises, provided to Edwards an overview of the cost-saving measures that they want to link to any efforts to raise revenue: An enhanced budget transparency website, a new way of calculating the state's spending cap and co-pays and work requirements for some Medicaid recipients.
The ideas have sparked considerable discussion in recent weeks, but the outline House Speaker Taylor Barras, R-New Iberia, presented to Edwards on Tuesday was met as a step toward Edwards possibly calling a special session in February to shore up the state's finances.
Edwards, who has called five special sessions since taking office in January 2016 to address budget issues, has said he won't call another before the regular session starts March 12 unless he has more details from House Republican leaders. Edwards said Tuesday that he views the proposal overview from Barras as "a positive development" in ongoing negotiations, but he still wants more information from House leadership.
"I remain confident that we can come to an agreement to avoid the fiscal cliff that will include responsible reforms that will allow us to fund the type of government the people of Louisiana deserve in the most efficient way possible," Edwards said in a statement.
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In the letter to Edwards, Barras asked the governor to include the proposals in any special session call he issues, as the governor's call sets the agenda.
"House members feel strongly about coupling these reforms to revenue measures being proposed in an effort to achieve a balanced solution to the existing shortfall," Barras wrote, though he didn't identify which revenue measures are gaining traction among the Republican-controlled House. "We will continue to evaluate options that we can offer support to with these reforms included."
Some Republicans continue to question the actual size of the shortfall, with the ultimate impact of Congress' recent federal tax rewrite still unclear and the state's first year of revenue collections outpacing projections in nearly a decade.
Edwards has acknowledged that state revenue collections will increase when the federal tax overhaul takes effect, because it will reduce the amount that people can deduct from what they pay in state taxes.
Additionally, Republicans have shown some resistance to covering the full projected shortfall, expressing interest in a combination of revenue and cuts. Barras shared that sentiment in his letter Tuesday.
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"It is critical that we start stretching hard-earned tax dollars further, and using our experience, knowledge, technology, leadership and innovative thinking to do more with less money," he wrote.
In the overview of their proposed budget reform package, Republicans propose that the existing LaTrac state budget website is outdated and doesn't go far enough toward providing access to state spending data.
OhioCheckbook.com has been hailed as a national model for such a site, since it went live in 2014. The Ohio site features specifically mentioned by Louisiana Republicans are the site's interactive charts and graphs, the ability to export data, cellphone and tablet reader compatibility and the ability to easily share findings on social media.
Their proposed spending cap would add a growth factor based on population, the consumer price index, state revenue collections and personal income growth. Currently, the state Legislature's spending limit is based on revenue projections.
The House Republican proposal for a Medicaid work requirement would exempt people younger than 19 or older than 64, those who are physically or mentally unfit for employment, pregnant women, parents of newborns or children with disabilities and people in drug or alcohol rehab programs. Edwards, who expanded the state's Medicaid program under the federal Affordable Care Act shortly after taking office, has said his administration is already working toward implementing a work requirement component to Medicaid.
The Republican overview also proposes that co-pays be required when a Medicaid recipient uses an emergency room for a non-emergency and for some prescription medications, and urges the state to consider requiring some Medicaid enrollees at the higher end of income eligibility to pay premiums.
Edwards said in a recent meeting with The Advocate editorial board that he's not outright opposed to any of the proposals, but he wants more information about potential costs to implement versus the savings they would reap.