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Gov. John Bel Edwards greets lawmakers before making opening day remarks at the start of the special session Monday.

Advocate Staff Photo by PATRICK DENNIS

Gov. John Bel Edwards and conservative Republicans in the state House waged a behind-the-scenes battle Thursday to determine which side has the upper hand when the full House takes its first votes Friday on plans to close a mid-year budget shortfall.

With the nine-day special session nearing its midway point, no one could say for sure how the votes would go.

Edwards met privately with interest groups that would suffer cuts if the House Republicans’ plan ultimately prevails, in a continuing effort to have those groups sway moderate Republicans to the governor’s position. Meanwhile, House Republican leaders held a caucus at lunch to rally members behind their stance.

Edwards, a Democrat, wants to win enough support to use the full amount available from the state’s rainy day fund, $119 million, in order to spare colleges and universities, K-12 schools and the prison system from spending cuts that otherwise would mostly fall on the state health care system.

A plan pushed by the House Republican leadership would take a lower amount from the rainy day fund, $74.6 million, and offset the difference by making some cuts to higher education ($6.2 million), K-12 schools ($7.5 million) and the corrections system ($4.6 million).

The key number Friday will be which side gets to 53 votes, the bare majority to pass a bill in the House, which has 105 seats (although only 102 are filled now).

The bills on tap Friday would make spending reductions as part of an overall plan to bridge the $304 million budget gap. State law requires Louisiana to have a balanced budget. Complicating the effort: the fiscal year ends on June 30 so many of the reductions could disrupt existing programs.

Under state law, use of the rainy day fund establishes a two-step process: one bill outlining budget cuts, another authorizing the use of the rainy day fund.

The budget bill requires a simple majority (53 in the House and 20 in the Senate), but tapping the rainy day fund faces a bigger hurdle. It requires approval from two-thirds of the House (70) and Senate (26).

Political insiders will be watching the vote tallies Friday to see which measures reach 53 and how close they get to 70.

Under the two-step process, the House will vote on the cuts Friday and the use of the rainy day fund on Saturday. The two votes should be closely related because the use of the rainy day fund will ultimately determine how much is left to be made up through cuts.

Any bills passed Friday will advance to the Senate, which has been waiting for the House to determine the size of the reductions. Budget measures have to begin in the House so senators have had little to do so far during the special session.

The House has been the battleground because key Senate leaders say Edwards can count on a two-thirds vote in the full Senate for the $119 million in rainy day funds that he wants.

Both the House and the Senate will have to settle on a final plan that wins a two-thirds vote in each chamber before midnight on Wednesday.

House Republican leaders acknowledged Thursday that they don’t yet have the 70 votes for their main position – taking $74.6 million in rainy day money – but said they were making progress.

“I feel better about it today than yesterday,” House Speaker Taylor Barras, R-New Iberia, said in an interview.

House Republican leaders and rank-and-file members said Edwards is far from getting the 70 votes he needs for the $119 million.

The Appropriations Committee on Thursday again rejected the governor’s budget proposal in a bill carried by House Speaker Pro Tempore Walt Leger III, D-New Orleans.

Leger said that the effort to push cuts, rather than dip deeper into reserves, is misguided.

“Any reductions at this point to those entities hit people and ultimately we are here about the people and not a spreadsheet,” he said. “Sometimes the numbers begin to become what we are fighting for when all along the thing we should be fighting for is the people of this state.”

Republicans, noting that they have moved closer to the governor’s position, called on him to seek less rainy day money.

“We’ve been described as the caucus of ‘No,’” said state Rep. Rick Edmonds, R-Baton Rouge, referring to a group of Republicans who have opposed Edwards on virtually all of his spending and tax measures. “He’s become the governor of 'No.’”

Instead of bowing to a figure that is less than the $119 million, House Democratic legislative leaders said they plan to offer a series of amendments Friday on popular programs that would be cut under the Republicans’ plan. The Democrats hope that enough Republicans will feel compelled to add back those programs one by one.

“The goal is to get as close as we can to the $119 million,” state Rep. Gene Reynolds, of Minden, the Democrats’ caucus leader, said in an interview.

As part of their strategy, the governor’s allies plan to ask the full House to go into what’s called “the committee of the whole,” which would permit Edwards’ Cabinet secretaries to go onto the House floor and from the podium detail the impact of the GOP's plan.

Besides the bill that would take $74.6 million from the rainy day fund, Edmonds and state Rep. Tony Bacala, R-Prairieville, are sponsoring a competing proposal before the House Friday that would take no money from the state's savings account. Edmonds and Bacala's bill would impose deep cuts in many programs, but it also calls for another $60 million through eliminating funding allocated for government positions that are currently vacant.

Bacala called the bill “a back-up” in case too many conservatives believe that $74.6 million from the rainy day fund is too much, blocking the leadership’s bill from getting 53 votes.

The Edmonds/Bacala bill will face a wall of opposition from the governor’s allies. Jay Dardenne, Edwards’ chief budget architect, said in an interview that the Edmonds/Bacala bill could keep state government from filling needed positions in the next four months.

Meanwhile, House Republican leadership appears to have its own back-up plan: If lawmakers and Edwards cannot agree on a final budget-balancing plan, the authority to close the remaining shortfall by making politically unpopular cuts would pass to Edwards to deal with alone.

“I don’t look at it as having leverage,” said state Rep. Cameron Henry, R-Metairie, who chairs the Appropriations Committee. “It’s part of the process.”

Edwards administration officials, however, are saying privately that they would simply push any shortfall to the regular session that begins in April, when lawmakers must pass the following year’s budget.

Follow Elizabeth Crisp on Twitter, @elizabethcrisp.