Gov. John Bel Edwards has repeatedly called for his political foes in the House Republican leadership to propose an alternative plan if they disagree with his recommendations that the state raise taxes to cover the looming budget shortfall.
But members of the GOP leadership, which has consistently been at odds with Edwards since he took office in January 2016, say they are prepared to deal with the budget in a cuts-first approach, and they disagree with the Democratic governor's warning about how deep the deficit will be.
House Speaker Taylor Barras, R-New Iberia, said the House is analyzing the current year's budget to determine how much money will be needed to keep funding at the current level when the new budget kicks in.
"A lot of members are asking that we stop there," Barras said. "I think before we entertain $400 million in new requests from departments, I think we want to do a full evaluation first."
Edwards says the state faces a $440 million shortfall in the budget year that begins July 1, if it wants to keep funding for state government level.
His Republican opponents disagree.
Edwards' plan, they argue, was built off the budget that existed in December. Lawmakers met in a special session earlier this year to address a $300 million midyear deficit in ways that they say should also be factored into the discussion, though $99 million of that was plugged by using the state's rainy day fund.
"I think we need to evaluate – if you hold flat – what that means to the cliff," Barras said.
It's an idea that also was floated by House Republican Caucus Chairman Lance Harris during the session's first week. Several other House Republicans also mentioned the flat funding idea during hearings on agencies' budgets over the past two weeks.
"There's been no major cuts. There's been no major catastrophes. Why can't the state of Louisiana spend the money next year that we did in the year we are in now?" Harris, of Alexandria, said.
Over the course of the hearings, the first step in crafting the final budget, state agency heads detailed how they've been affected by budget cuts: Most state employees haven't received raises in years. Positions are increasingly going unfilled when people leave.
In all, the state would need an additional $400 million to fulfill their funding wish lists – on top of the shortfall.
On Tuesday, the public portion of the House budget hearings will give Louisiana residents a chance to make their case for how the state should be spending its money. Typically, the public hearing draws input in particular from advocates for health care programs and education.
Barras said he thinks the House can get a budget bill sent to the Senate by early May. That gives House members about three weeks to come up with a plan for the state's priorities.
Barras said that the House proposal will include specific program cuts, rather than broad cuts to agencies' bottom line.
"I just want members to be clear that standstill doesn't sound like cut, but some things will not be funded," Barras said.
The Revenue Estimating Conference, which determines how much money the state can spend based on estimates of the economic climate and tax trends, will meet later in May to update the state's financial outlook.
Barras said he would be surprised if the state sees a major uptick in the estimate of money available, but the conference will give a better idea of the appropriate size of the budget.
Edwards, meanwhile, is pushing lawmakers to agree to a series of tax proposals, chief among them a gross receipts tax on businesses that is meant to replace a penny sales tax set to expire next year.
Barras said he thinks there is little support for the receipts tax, called a commercial activities tax or CAT, among House members. A bill incorporating Edwards' proposal hasn't been filed. The governor told The Advocate he's still fine-tuning the details of which businesses the tax would apply to and ways to prevent businesses from being taxed beyond their profit margins.
"That's a tough one for me," said Barras, who is a banker in private life.
Edwards, during his session-opening State of the State speech on Monday, said he worries that Louisiana is on the brink of the partisan gridlock that has plagued Washington, D.C.
"It disappoints me because every challenge that we face, I'm assured that they are going to have their own plan; that they are doing their own studies; that they would take the task force's report and see what they could agree to and what they couldn't. And that they would propose in the alternative," Edwards said in a meeting with The Advocate editorial board Monday after his speech. "It is the case over and over again that they ultimately decide it's just easier — don't come up with your own plan, just vote against the one Edwards puts on the table."
Edwards has repeatedly aired his complaints about the House Republicans' calls for more cuts to the budget.
"There's all this talk about 'We're going to do a cuts approach.' 'Edwards is a tax-and-spend liberal.' 'We're going to reduce the size of government,' " he said. "Well, they don't do that either. We've made plenty of cuts since I've been governor."
Edwards questioned how serious the calls for cuts are or whether they are more driven by partisanship.
"I can't understand how they think they are being serious, responsible legislators," Edwards said. "I can respect somebody who votes no on revenue, but then endorse the cuts. Stand behind them. They won't do it."
Barras said he was "disappointed" by the governor's criticism directed at his chamber. While the House leadership doesn't have a one-sheet plan that it can point to, like the governor, he said he believes his members are seriously considering their options.
"We've had members file multiple bills that, I think, when you package those together, will be an interesting combination of items," Barras said.
Harris has said the state should evaluate tax credit programs that he said can be costly to the state with little return.
Barras said he's hesitant to call anything a "plan" because the chamber's 105 members have different ideas and don't operate as a monolith.
"I hate to keep referencing the word 'plan,' " Barras said. "It's definitely a direction that they are choosing to move."
He said he expects that the House version will be some combination of five to six bills. "I just don't know that we have it all yet," he said.
He said he is interested in evaluating the business inventory tax and ending the corresponding credit that costs the state millions each year.
Louisiana is one of 12 states with an inventory tax — a property tax on the goods that businesses have on hand or raw materials needed to manufacture products.
"I think that's a two- or three-year process to move away from us funding the locals," Barras said. "I think the discussions will be there."