Gov. John Bel Edwards has unveiled a doomsday budget that would gut the popular Taylor Opportunity Program for Students, deeply cut mental health and other health care programs and eliminate funding for some local government services, among other efforts to cut $1 billion ahead of the looming budget shortfall.
"I want to be clear, this is not the budget I want to present and certainly not the budget I want implemented," Edwards told state lawmakers during his executive budget presentation Monday. "This is what falling off the cliff looks like."
The news didn't come as a surprise, as Edwards has been touting the potential trouble ahead for the state as a set of temporary tax measures expire June 30.
But Edwards' budget proposal, which is the first step in crafting a budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1 and must be balanced according to the latest revenue estimates, was met with skepticism from some Republicans on the Joint Legislative Budget Committee as he presented it, and there is still no deal that has been reached to try to scale back the size of the "fiscal cliff" the state faces.
State lawmakers will be charged with building a final version during their regular session that begins in March.
Edwards, a Democrat who took office in January 2016, has spent the past several weeks warning that the state would have to make deep, painful cuts to agencies and services if lawmakers don't reach an agreement to shore up the state's finances in the coming weeks.
"Our window of opportunity continues to shrink every day," Edwards said. "The longer we wait, the more damage we cause."
He has also spent the past several weeks meeting privately with opponents to his plan, largely House Republican leaders, to try to win support but they have frequently complained that the governor hasn't provided enough detailed information about his proposals to help them build up the two-thirds vote that he needs support from for passage.
House Appropriations Committee Chair Cameron Henry, R-Metairie, continued to stress that he wants more specific information about Edwards' plan.
"They haven't been able to produce a fiscal note," he said, repeating a frequent critique among House Republicans.
Henry and House GOP Caucus Chair Lance Harris on Monday questioned whether the ideas Edwards has presented would generate enough revenue to cover the entire nearly $1 billion hole.
"That's the conundrum that we've been in as House members," said Harris, R-Alexandria. "Where are the figures, where is the data to back up this plan?"
Edwards wants to call a special session in February to address the "fiscal cliff" before the regular session starts March 12.
Republicans who oppose Edwards' budget measures have said they want more cuts or structural changes to the budget to offset some of the lost revenue.
"I do think there are more opportunities on the expense side," said Sen. Sharon Hewitt, R-Slidell.
Edwards recently said that he has been approached about Medicaid copays or work requirements, a budget transparency site and a lowered spending cap, but he said he too feels he hasn't gotten enough information from lawmakers.
The threat of possible budget cuts drew strong opposition from higher education and health care advocates, among others.
"The budget cuts proposed under this worst-case scenario would be detrimental to the health of our residents and our economy in every region of the state," said Paul Salles, president and CEO of the Louisiana Hospital Association. "If these cuts materialize, they could lead to a drastic reduction of some hospital services and medical education in communities across Louisiana."
University of Louisiana System President Jim Henderson called the threat to TOPS "unconscionable."
"We should be talking about a reinvestment in our people, especially those we have historically underserved," he said.
But he said he doesn't blame Edwards.
"We understand the governor is mandated to submit a budget that aligns with the revenue forecast and that he is severely limited in where cuts can be proposed," Henderson said. "His commitment to higher education and that of the legislature last year ensured our universities were held stable and TOPS was fully funded for the first time in nearly a decade."
The budget proposal includes the complete elimination of state funding for TOPS scholarships – about $233.34 million.
The state Department of Health would take the deepest cuts – about $656.6 million in state funding that balloons to a $2.4 billion hit when the loss of matching federal and other outside revenue is factored.
It also would eliminate some $10 million that is paid to local sheriffs for parole holds and cut the per diem rate that the state pays to sheriffs and operators of transitional work programs, about $34 million, and eliminate $25.8 million in state funding for district attorneys.
"I can't justify or defend any of the cuts in this budget," said Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne, Edwards' chief budget architect.
He said that the size of the shortfall, coupled with restrictions on the budget that limit where cuts can be made forced the worst-case-scenario presented Monday.
"To fund TOPS, you have to figure out what it is that you aren't going to fund," he said.
Dardenne warned about the possible backlash on the health care industry if the state cuts back its health care services and other offerings, as well as the potential impact on college and university campuses if students decide to go elsewhere.
"There are going to be reverberations into the private sector," Dardenne said.
In Baton Rouge as well as Washington, budgets sent by the administration to the legislative branch are often considered dead on arrival. But r…