Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget Vice-Chairman Rep. Cameron Henry, R-Metairie, addresses a question to Gov. John Bel Edwards, before presentation of the Governor's plan to address the $304 million budget deficit for the current year, Friday, Jan. 27, 2017.


Then-state Rep. John Bel Edwards complained year after year that Gov. Bobby Jindal wasn’t serious about solving the state’s budget problems because he repeatedly relied on gimmicks and one-time money to close funding gaps.

So it’s ironic that the Louisiana House’s budget chairman – a conservative who issued the same complaints against Jindal – says Gov. Edwards is resorting to similar tactics, with his plan to fill a budget shortfall during a special session that begins on Monday.

Edwards is proposing to balance a $304 million deficit by cutting $63 million from state agencies, using $44 million in higher-than-expected tobacco tax revenue and taking the other $197 million from various reserve funds or by delaying spending projects – money that likely won’t be available next year.

“He’s following a plan similar to what he criticized so heavily before,” said state Rep. Cameron Henry, R-Metairie, who chairs the Appropriations Committee. “A lot of us served with him and expected something different as it relates to his handling of the budget, instead of something that mirrors so closely what the previous administration did.”

Edwards, a Democrat, is calling lawmakers into session because last year they approved $304 million more in spending than the state is on track to collect by June 30, the end of the current fiscal year. State law requires the state to balance the budget.

Jay Dardenne, a prominent Republican who serves as Edwards’ top budget officer, said in an interview that administration officials have had no alternative to relying on short-term solutions now because the lateness in the fiscal year gives them little room to maneuver without cutting spending for public colleges and universities – which have suffered 16 separate cuts over the past nine years – K-12 schools and programs that help families with developmentally disabled children get through the day.

“The time to curtail spending is when the budget is approved,” Dardenne said, noting that the Edwards administration is attempting to protect programs that lawmakers sought when they approved the current budget last year.

Dardenne also noted that for all the conservatives’ complaints about spending, they have offered few specific spending reductions.

“We say to them: Tell us where you want to cut.”

State Rep. Lance Harris of Alexandria, who chairs the House Republican Caucus, said they might release a specific plan in the coming days.

Henry’s criticism of the governor’s plan, which Harris shares, centers on Edwards’ proposal to take $119 million from the state’s rainy day to cover about 40 percent of the $304 million deficit and to shift money from other accounts and delay payments to cover a good portion of the rest.

The complaints by Henry and Harris are likely to carry weight with their moderate Republican colleagues, who will decide whether Edwards secures the 70 votes that he needs in the House to tap into the rainy day fund. The House has 35-45 moderate Republicans.

“There’s still a wall against using the rainy day fund,” said state Rep. Mark Abraham, R-Lake Charles. “We’ll see if that wall stands.”

Abraham said he would support using the rainy day money “as a last resort” and hopes that the governor won’t need the full $119 million.

The Budget Stabilization Fund – for rainy financial days – is money from a variety of state sources that is aside each year in an account for use when the economy is down. The rainy day fund is expected to receive $25 million this fiscal year.

Edwards will need a good portion of the House Republican moderates since Republicans have a majority.

He can count on 40 of the 41 House Democrats who have said they will support using the $119 million in rainy day money, said state Rep. Gene Reynolds of Minden, the House Democrats’ leader. (Reynolds declined to identify the one uncommitted member.)

The focus is on the House because Senate President John Alario, R-Westwego, has said Edwards will win the 26 votes he needs in the 39-member Senate to use the $119 million.

Edwards needs a two-thirds vote in both chambers to tap into the rainy day fund, in what appears to be the major issue to resolve during the 10-day special session.

Republicans and Democrats in the House are planning to caucus separately Monday to firm up their positions on the governor’s spending plans, just before the special session begins at 6:30 p.m.

State Sen. Eric LaFleur, D-Ville Platte, who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, said his panel will take up the rainy day plan on Tuesday morning. It would need to win approval in both the Senate and House. Meanwhile, Henry said his committee will tackle spending cuts that same morning – cuts that would ultimately have to win approval in both chambers.

The $119 million that Edwards wants to pull from the rainy day fund is one-third of the current amount, the maximum allowed. The current total of $360 million is down from a peak of $853 million in 2009.

Jindal and the previous Legislature raided it four times to avoid raising taxes or cut spending further, and Edwards and lawmakers dipped into it again last year.

With the release of their plan Monday, administration staffers are calling House Republicans to win them over.

Some moderate Republicans support the using the $119 million.

State Rep. Chris Broadwater, R-Hammond, said the budget is so uncertain going forward – Dardenne said lawmakers are facing an estimated $200 million shortfall when they go into the regular session in April to write next year’s budget and a $1.5 billion gap the following year – that they need to use the rainy day money now.

State Rep. Charles “Bubba” Chaney, R-Rayville, favors using the rainy day money to prevent cuts to five rural health clinics in his district, as well as Delta Community College, the University of Louisiana at Monroe and the big public hospital in Monroe.

“I’m in favor of whatever we can do to diminish the impact of the cuts,” Chaney said, in a comment echoed by state Rep. Rob Shadoin, R-Ruston.

Many Republicans remain deeply skeptical, including state Rep. Kirk Talbot, R-River Ridge.

“This is just a Band-Aid, and it’s not even a good Band-Aid,” Talbot said.

The governor’s office is trying hard to win the support of state Rep. Chris Leopold, R-Belle Chasse, but he said he is leaning against the proposal.

“There’s no can left to kick,” Leopold said.

“We need to stop looking at short-term solutions,” added Rep. Blake Miguez, R-Erath.

Follow Tyler Bridges on Twitter, @tegbridges.