The Louisiana Legislature is expected to be called into another special session later this year, and while details remain murky, Gov. John Bel Edwards says he’s planning for it to come soon after lawmakers end their regular session in June.
“I don’t know if we can wait until the fall under any circumstance,” Edwards told reporters during a news conference in his fourth floor State Capitol office on Thursday. “The later we wait to get additional revenue, the more unstable the state of Louisiana is.”
Edwards’ administration is expected to outline a spending plan on Tuesday for the coming budget cycle during a House Appropriations Committee meeting — a presentation that Edwards described as “sobering.”
“It’s going to be very tough,” he said. “It’s going to be impossible to fashion a budget that adequately funds what the overwhelming majority of people in Louisiana believe to be critical priorities.”
By law, the state cannot budget more money than it is projected to bring in under current revenue projections, and the Legislature can’t take up revenue-raising measures during its current regular session.
Legislators have held small subcommittee meetings over the past two weeks to hear from state agencies how massive cuts to their budgets would affect services.
From higher education leaders who warned about threats to programs and the popular Taylor Opportunity Program for Students scholarships to corrections leaders who cautioned that the state could be forced to start freeing prisoners, the steady chorus has been a familiar tune of doom and gloom if lawmakers don’t come up with more money to fund services next year.
But legislators and Republican leaders remain skeptical of turning to even more taxes to settle the budget turmoil, after approving some $1 billion in new taxes just a month ago.
“Hopefully, individuals will look at the budget as it’s presented ... and determine that more revenue is necessary,” Edwards said.
Edwards, a Democrat who was sworn into office Jan. 11, is just four weeks into his first regular session as governor. He previously spent eight years as the leader of the minority party in the state House. Republicans hold sizable majorities in both chambers.
At the end of the contentious 25-day special session last month, Edwards said he worried that partisan gridlock would grind the State Capitol. On Tuesday, he expressed optimism about bridging alliances across party lines.
“I’ve remained engaged,” he said. “I’m talking to everyone to work through differences and find common ground.”
“The pace allows for more discussion, more meetings and collaboration — which is what I’ve told the people of Louisiana that we wanted to do,” he added.
He said he knows not everyone will be on board with him when the session ends June 6.
“That’s a very small percentage of folks, though,” he said. “Sometimes they get more attention than they deserve because they are noisy.”
Edwards’ agenda for his first regular session has seen some movement in recent weeks, with bills in support of gender pay equality and an increased minimum wage heading to the Senate floor.
Edwards, mimicking calls from some Republicans, had said he backs copayments as part of changes to Louisiana’s Medicaid program under a new federally-backed expansion.
On Thursday, several bills that sought to implement such changes didn’t make it to a committee vote after a lengthy debate over the merits of such efforts.
Edwards, during the news conference, acknowledged that the bills didn’t have the bipartisan support to make it to the House floor but said he still supports the copay plan and hopes to find another avenue to pursue it later in the session.
“We’re going to continue to discuss this matter,” he said, adding that he plans to work with legislators as well as health care providers who have raised concerns about their role in the copayment plans.
Health care advocates and advocates for the poor also have raised objections to the plan.
Joyce Marie Plummer, a representative of the Micah Project who testified in the Health and Welfare Committee meeting said she worried such efforts would “compromise health and welfare of those who need it the most.”
“We have not been sensitive to those who are the most financially vulnerable,” she said. “It’s such a disappointing position for a state that is known as being part of the Bible Belt.”
Edwards said he thinks copays would create an incentive for healthier behavior and discourage costly hospital visits that should be handled by primary care providers.
“The copay to me is a way to not only encourage personal responsibility but change behavior,” Edwards said.