Gov. John Bel Edwards told reporters Thursday that his first priority is stabilizing the fiscal crisis, and everything else is on the back burner.
“Priority No. 1 has to be about stabilizing the state of Louisiana and dealing with the largest budget deficit in our history,” Edwards said. “If we are not successful, very little else that I’ve talked about in the campaign and since, we’re going to be able to do.”
The governor answered questions on several topics — from the way construction projects are funded to scholarships for college students — during the 30-minute news conference. But much of his attention focused on the budget.
Using spending cuts and tax increases, lawmakers closed all but about $600 million in a $2 billion deficit for the fiscal year beginning July 1 during the first special session in February and March. The Legislature is forbidden by law from addressing tax issues during its current regular session, which ends June 6, leaving budget cuts as the only alternative.
The budget proposal before the Legislature right now includes a $50 million reduction in spending for public K-12 schools, a 66 percent cut in the popular tuition-paying Taylor Opportunity Program for Students, and cuts for charity hospitals in Houma, Bogalusa, Lake Charles and Alexandria. That could change as legislators work through the budget process.
As Republicans are looking over the state budget, they’re also hoping the Revenue Estimating Conference will officially tell the state it has more money to spend.
Edwards said the prudent thing is to prepare for another special session in June, which would allow lawmakers to raise revenues, if necessary.
When the governor calls a special session, he would have to specifically say what legislators can consider. The blue ribbon panel’s report would give him some guidance, he said.
The panel, co-chaired by LSU economist Jim Richardson, is expected to make its recommendations in a few weeks.
Reducing tax breaks is one of the key areas that could help raise revenues. “You can reduce tax expenditures, which is something that I am very hopeful the task force will put as its No. 1 or No. 2 recommendation that we can pursue in the second special session,” the governor said.
Edwards also suggested critics should “focus their attention and efforts on the small group of legislators who are currently visiting cuts on agencies across state government because of their refusal to engage in meaningful alternatives.”
On a lighter note, Edwards said, “My family eats a lot of eggs,” in response to a question of a student from St. Genevieve Catholic Elementary School in Thibodaux about the now famous chicken coop he installed on the grounds of the Governor’s Mansion. He expects that when the 16 chickens start laying, they will produce about a dozen eggs a day. The children sat on the floor to watch the news conference.
All smiles now, Edwards said the chickens, which he paid for, will save the state money by reducing the cost of eggs for the first family’s grocery bills.
Follow Mark Ballard on Twitter @MarkBallardCNB.
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