Louisiana lawmakers appear to be heading toward another special session next month to try to shore up the state budget, Gov. John Bel Edwards indicated on Wednesday.
"My best guess is that we are," Edwards said in a meeting with The Advocate's editorial board Wednesday. "Just looking at the tea leaves, we're going to have a special session at some point in February."
He said he's looking at scheduling it sometime between Valentine's Day and Mardi Gras, and he will be talking to legislative leaders on Thursday to get their input on what he will include in his call for a special session for lawmakers to consider.
Edwards, a Democrat, and others have been discussing the potential need for a special session for several weeks, even as some Republicans have downplayed the prospect of one.
Edwards said he believes a $300 million or more deficit would automatically trigger the need for a special session because it would exceed the amount he is able to cut from the budget on his own.
But Edwards, who as governor has the authority to call a special session as he wants and set the perimeters for one, also pointed out that a special session would allow more flexibility in cuts — hinting that even if a trigger isn't reached the state may miss out on less painful budget adjustments he can't make on his own.
"I'm confined to a narrow spectrum of the budget as to where i can make adjustments," Edwards said, referring to the legal framework for how to handle balancing the budget when legislators are not officially meeting. "If we have a special session, every part of the budget, including the judiciary and legislative budget can be opened up. That's a much more responsible approach than just hammering the hell out of higher education and health care."
Edwards said that multiple statewide officials have approached him, willing to take deeper hits to their budget to spare other state services.
"I can't even do what some folks are saying they would be willing to accept without the Legislature coming in," Edwards said.
Edwards is eyeing a special session one year after being sworn into office and 11 months after lawmakers kicked off the first of two special sessions last year to deal with the same issue.
Edwards and lawmakers have made $850 million in cuts to the state budget over the past year. The Legislature also increased the sales tax to generate $1.2 billion in additional revenue and approved an increase in the cigarette tax during the special sessions. Edwards has called on legislators to address structural issues in the budget when the regular session begins in April.
A panel that sets the state's revenue forecasts will ultimately decide the size of Louisiana's latest fiscal hole, based on advice from the state's economists. The Revenue Estimating Conference is scheduled to meet Friday.
Gov. John Bel Edwards is rounding out his first year in office with an eye already firmly pl…
Edwards is scheduled to meet with Senate President John Alario, R-Westwego, and House Speaker Taylor Barras, R-New Iberia, on Thursday ahead of the revenue panel's meeting. He said he plans to discuss the special session with them and plans for adjusting the budget.
Barras has been among the more skeptical members of the Legislature regarding the need for a special session and said Wednesday that he's still not convinced that a special session is needed.
Through use of the rainy day fund, cuts allowed by the governor, and the governor and Joint Legislative Budget Committee trimming statutory dedications, he said he thinks that enough can be pared back.
"I do believe there is a way to close the gap," he said. "A potential plan for how the administration plans to address the deficit is what I want to hear more about."
Barras said that he has already implemented a 10 percent cut to the House budget. He said he had not heard that other state leaders were volunteering to take deeper cuts, but he agreed with the governor that colleges and universities should be spared as much as possible after deep hits to their budgets in recent years.
"Particularly, higher ed has taken multiple levels of cuts," Barras said. "We worked through the '16 session trying to be as equitable as we could to the hospitals."
Dr. Rebekah Gee, secretary of the Louisiana Department of Health, said Wednesday she’s bracing for her agency to take a hit of several millions from her agency appropriations if the REC says the state is more than $300 million below revenue projections.
“We always get hit,” Gee said.
Because of restrictions on the state budget, health care and higher education are often vulnerable to cuts.
“We’re putting together various budget scenarios. We have to be prepared,” Gee said. “And we’re explaining to legislators why we need more revenues.”