Gov. John Bel Edwards called on Louisiana legislators to come together in the next two weeks of their latest special session to finalize a plan to address the state's looming billion-dollar budget shortfall.
"Business leaders and local officials are tired of the endless financial battles," Edwards said during his special session-opening address Monday. "They want us to stabilize our budget once and for all, reform our tax code so that it is predictable and fair for all Louisiana citizens and businesses, and create a structure that grows with our economy so that we can get out of our own way."
Legislators made their way back to the State Capitol earlier in the day for their fifth special session in two years – all tied to the state's seemingly never-ending cycle of budget shortfalls.
"If we all work together, I’m actually optimistic this could be the last," Edwards said.
The special session must end by March 7, and lawmakers will enter the regular session on March 12. State law bars them from taking up most revenue-generating measures during regular sessions held in even-numbered years.
Remarks by Gov. John Bel Edwards 1st Special Session of 2018 February 19, 2018 (As prepared for delivery)
"Every step we have taken in preparation for this session is to ensure that we get the job done – and that we get it done right. And that we get it done now," Edwards said. "I am optimistic that we can do it."
Edwards, a Democrat, has argued that the state needs to replace some of the $1.3 billion in tax measures set to expire June 30.
So far, lawmakers haven't reached a consensus on how to do that. Some want an extension of all or part of the one-cent sales tax hike approved in 2016. Some are pushing for the state to collect sales taxes on items that have previously been exempt.
Those proposals, or some variation of them, are expected to be heard in a committee meeting Tuesday.
Two items that Edwards has suggested – compressing state income tax brackets and charging sales taxes on some services – have been met with resistance among House Republican leaders and are unlikely to pass.
Meanwhile, the GOP-controlled House is also pushing a series of spending control measures – the creation of a transparency website, changing how the state calculates how much money lawmakers can spend each year and three items related to the state Medicaid health care program – to be linked to any revenue-generating measures that pass in the special session.
"For the next 17 days, I am asking you not to think only as Democrats or Republicans, but as Louisianans. We all want the same things," Edwards said. "There is only one 'side' to be on here and that is on the side of the people of our great state who are tired of hearing about the same problems year after year with no resolution."
House GOP Caucus Chair Lance Harris, R-Alexandria, said he felt that the special session got off to a "good start."
"I'm optimistic," he said, heading into a House leadership meeting after Edwards' speech.
Sen. Bodi White, R-Central, said some legislators are still concerned about how much money is needed to fill the shortfall. The state is expecting to reap a windfall that hasn't been factored into projections yet, thanks to Congress' federal tax rewrite. The state's economic outlook update will take place next month.
"We want to fill the gap and not go over the cliff, but how much is the gap," White said. "I don't want to raise too many taxes."
White described the mood on Monday as "somber."
"It's kinda like Groundhog Day," he said. "Every February we are back at the Capitol."
Edwards presented an executive budget proposal last month that included nearly $1 billion in cuts to higher education and health care that would threaten safety net hospitals and college campuses to reflect the shortfall.
If lawmakers fail to pass a budget by the June 4 end of the regular session, there would be another special session in June. Special sessions cost the state about $70,000 a day.
The 144 members of Louisiana’s Legislature will convene Monday in a special session that will mark their fifth attempt in two years to solve t…
Edwards said that failure to shore up the state's finances in the current special session could threaten the state's economy.
"If we wait until June, our economy too will take a hit. The rating agencies that have downgraded our credit over the last several years will again consider whether we will ever have a stable budget," he said. "Businesses are going to have to move forward as if the worst case scenario is the only scenario. That means organizations that provide essential health care services for some of our most vulnerable populations will have to start laying people off. Our partner hospitals, with thousands of private sector employees, would be forced to issue layoff notices because of this uncertainty."
Kelly Monroe, executive director of the Arc of Louisiana, a group that provides support and personal care assistance for people with developmental disabilities and their families, was among Edwards' guests for the speech. He said Monroe told him that as many as 60 percent of the people they serve would lose their waiver services that funds their care, prompting the layoff of about 2,000 Arc employees, more than half the group's staff.
"These organizations and the fellow Louisianans they serve cannot wait to know if they have to lay off their workers or, in some cases, close their doors," Edwards said. "We talk a lot about running government the way we would run a business. No prudent business person would choose to wait."