Gov. John Bel Edwards is approaching the final stretch of the special legislative session with cautious optimism.
“I believe we are going to be successful,” Edwards said during a news conference Friday — just 12 days from the special session’s March 9 end. “We are not there yet.”
Edwards’ first in-person remarks after a week that marked the first major actions toward fixing the state’s $900 million budget shortfall were measured.
Edwards said he’s “not happy” about the pace at the Capitol two weeks into the special session. He had hoped the House would begin advancing legislation on Monday — four days before it actually did.
“I’m encouraging them to work hard,” he said.
The House advanced legislation on Thursday that would cut the state budget by $100 million and increase the state sales tax by 1 cent to bring in an estimated $200 million before the budget ends June 30. The proposals now head to the Senate.
But Edwards warned that the bills that have gained momentum enough to start moving through the legislative process still leave a large hole.
“It hasn’t come close to fixing the problem,” he said, echoing comments from Senate President John Alario, whose chamber has been held in a waiting period as legislation has slugged through the lower chamber, where revenue bills have to start.
“The actions in the House were good, but we’re not solving the problem yet,” Alario said Thursday.
The Legislature already has agreed to use $128 million from the state rainy day fund and $200 million from BP oil spill settlement funds to help plug the hole.
If the House measures are approved as they passed that chamber this week, there still would be about a $200 million gap.
“I’m working very hard to find the right balance of spending cuts and additional revenue to solve this problem and avoid devastating cuts to critical services,” Edwards said of the ongoing negotiations between his administration and legislators who don’t want to rely too heavily on tax hikes to solve the budget crisis.
“While there is plenty of things to do, we are starting to move in the right direction,” Edwards said.
As Edwards gave his special session briefing in the Governor’s Office on the fourth floor of the State Capitol, legislators downstairs trudged through another day of tax hike proposals. The chamber is expected to weigh additional tax measures next week. The House hasn’t yet taken up Edwards’ proposals to increase taxes paid on cigarettes and alcohol — typically seen as easier tax measures to implement because they are so-called “sin taxes” that target specific behaviors.
Edwards indicated that he’ll be relying on the Senate to tweak the bills that are coming its way.
The House budget cut proposal includes a $44 million hit to the Department of Education — about 85 percent of the department’s existing funds, which leaders there say would decimate the budget for testing, vouchers and departmental staff, among other things.
“That doesn’t reflect that there was a lot of thought given to that,” Edwards said, noting that’s one cut he doesn’t think will make it through the Senate.
Edwards said he also doesn’t agree with the 18-month expiration date that the House added to the sales tax hike before sending that bill to the Senate. House leaders have defended the “sunset” on the bill as a change that was necessary to get it through.
“Eighteen months is not a realistic number,” Edwards said.
He also said he doesn’t think that the House has worked hard enough to address structural issues in the budget.
Edwards has said he favors a tinkering with the corporate and personal income tax brackets that would create “lower, flatter, fairer rates.”
“Those things are not even being considered by the House,” he said.
Follow Elizabeth Crisp on Twitter, @elizabethcrisp.