Republicans in the Louisiana House are aiming to offer actual proposals next month that would cut spending if the Legislature, as expected, goes into a special session to eliminate a budget shortfall.

Following weeks of private meetings by a select group of their lawmakers studying the budget, House Republicans are also seeking to offer specific ways to cut spending and raise taxes during the regular legislative session that also will focus on budget problems, beginning in April.

If the House Republicans follow through with specifics, which is by no means certain, they would address a major gripe of Gov. John Bel Edwards and his top aides that the Republicans have been carping about the governor’s spending plans without devising alternatives.

“The challenge now with Republicans in the House is to show us the cuts,” Jay Dardenne, the Edwards administration’s top budget official, said in an interview Tuesday. “Last year, they were unsuccessful in showing us meaningful cuts even though they had plenty of opportunities to do that.”

The onus on Republicans in the House will be especially high if they insist on eliminating the projected $313 million shortfall during the special session with cuts only.

Edwards and Dardenne say that lawmakers will have to cut too many vital government programs during the special session — programs they believe that Republicans also want — unless they balance the budget by taking $119 million, the maximum allowed, from the state’s rainy day fund.

“It will be politically impossible to make $313 million in cuts,” Dardenne said, noting that the Legislature already had to make $313 million in cuts last month.

State Rep. Lance Harris, R-Alexandria, said Republicans in the House are wary of tapping into the rainy day fund because legislators and the governor have done so repeatedly in recent years.

 

“Members are concerned that every time we have hard issues come up, we look to the rainy day fund,” Harris said. “Over the years, we have depleted the rainy day fund and not put money back into it.”

The rainy day fund has dropped from its peak of $853 million in 2009 to $359 million currently. Most of the reduction came during the administration of Gov. Bobby Jindal, who, with legislators’ approval, took money out of the state's reserves to avoid raising taxes.

Sen. Eric LaFleur, a Democrat from Ville Platte who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, said senators have not been holding meetings comparable to what the House Republicans have been doing. He said he believes the Senate overall favors tapping the rainy day fund.

With the state budget mired in red ink now, the House Republicans have an especially key role to play because they outmaneuvered Edwards as he was taking office a year ago and installed one of their own, state Rep. Taylor Barras of New Iberia, as the speaker.

It was a dramatic development because until then, governors had routinely ensured having a friendly speaker who in turn named the governor’s allies to chair the different legislative committees. Republicans said the election of Barras portended a new era where legislators would be more independent of the governor.

With greater independence comes greater responsibility, of course.

Harris, a burly businessman who heads the House Republican Caucus, has taken the lead in having his delegation come up with specific plans.

Lawmakers are facing a series of budget problems. The $313 million deficit is for the current fiscal year that began on July 1. They must close the shortfall by law, unlike Congress, which can let the deficits slide. The cut last month was to close the books on the budget that ended June 30 after revenue collections didn't meet expectations — something that Edwards and Dardenne had said last year was likely after the Republican-controlled Legislature failed to approve all the tax measures they sought during 2016.

When legislators meet during the regular session beginning in April, they must also devise a plan to close a projected $400 million deficit when they approve a budget for the 2017-18 fiscal year that begins on July 1.

Lawmakers face an even bigger projected budget the following year with the expiration of $1.5 billion in temporary taxes approved during 2016.

In the face of these budget problems, Harris, after consulting with other House leaders, appointed a group of seven Republicans in September to study ways to cut government spending. State Rep. Johnny Berthelot of Gonzalez has been the chairman.

“The public wants us to look long and hard at spending that for years the state took care of but perhaps can’t afford anymore,” Berthelot said.

He said any meaningful plan would have to include ideas acceptable to Democrats, a notion seconded by Harris.

“We are more than willing to sit down with Democrats and the administration to discuss our plan,” Harris said, adding that that task will be easier because Edwards’ budget plans no longer contain the gimmicks and one-time money put forth by Jindal.

Rep. Jim Morris, of Oil City, has been chairing a separate seven-member committee that has been studying a series of recommendations by a special task force created by the Legislature to analyze Louisiana’s tax system.

The Republican tax committee studied those recommendations each Monday starting in November and ending last week.

Separately, the spending and tax committees voted on which proposals they could accept and forwarded their ideas to the Republican Party’s policy committee, which is meeting next week to formalize the delegation’s recommendations. State Rep. Greg Miller, R-Norco, chairs the policy committee.

Members who have been studying ways to cut spending didn’t offer any specifics in interviews.

Rep. Tony Bacala, R-Prairieville, was tasked with examining the Louisiana Department of Hospitals (formerly known as DHH).

“You’ll find some things you wholeheartedly agree with and some things you scratch your head with,” Bacala said, adding that he would be meeting with hospital officials this week to get more ideas. “It’s premature to point my finger at any one area.”

Bacala did say imposing a co-pay of up to $8 per visit for Medicaid recipients could raise $90 million per year, although the proposal would not qualify as a spending cut.

On the revenue side, members of that committee said Republicans showed little appetite to raise more money by eliminating income tax breaks, as the task force recommended, and as Edwards seems to favor.

Instead, committee members looked at extending the state sales tax to services that go untaxed today.

“You’re going to see a focus on taxes on services, similar to what Texas does,” said state Rep. Stephen Dwight, R-Lake Charles. He said it was too early to know how much this plan might raise.

Elizabeth Crisp of The Advocate Capital news bureau contributed to this story.

Follow Tyler Bridges on Twitter, @tegbridges.