Edwards addresses CCA-La convention

Gov. John Bel Edwards addresses Louisiana legislators during a Feb. 2, 2017 speech to the Coastal Conservation Association in Baton Rouge. 

Advocate Photo by Mark Ballard

Gov. John Bel Edwards wants $119 million from the rainy day fund to balance the state budget during the upcoming special session, but he has yet to win the support of moderate House Republicans, who will decide his plan’s fate.

Edwards and his team have not done much yet to directly lobby the Republican moderates, they say, with the nine-day special session set to begin on Feb. 13.

“He and his staff have a lot of work to do to convince enough members to support it,” said state Rep. Thomas Carmody, R-Shreveport, one of 16 moderate Republicans interviewed by The Advocate. None of them would commit to backing the governor’s plan. They said they are hearing from constituents that they should cut government spending.

Edwards 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.

On Monday, Edwards will propose $185 million in spending cuts for the Legislature to approve, along with the $119 million from the rainy day fund to eliminate the $304 million shortfall.

The Legislature will have to close a separate deficit that could be as much as $400 million when it goes into regular session in April and has to approve next year’s budget.

House Republicans are not expected to present their own spending plan before the special session begins.

The governor’s office said he will intensify his lobbying efforts after releasing the plan Monday.

Edwards says tapping into the reserve fund in the special session will keep the state from hurting too many people who depend on vital government services – and will allow K-12 schools, public colleges and universities and the private companies that manage the state’s hospitals – to escape budget cuts.

The governor met privately with officials from these groups during the past week with a focused message: They need to lobby legislators to support use of the rainy day money because failure to use those dollars will put their institutions on the spending chopping block, too. On Friday, he met with top officials from the Louisiana Association of Health Plans, which represent 1.4 million Medicaid recipients.

“We told the governor, ‘We are with you 100 percent because the cuts that we have been incurring are not sustainable,’ ” said Jeff Drozda, the chief executive officer of the health plans.

Edwards and Jay Dardenne, the Republican who serves as his chief budget official, have said they believe legislators will ultimately use the rainy day money because making cuts alone would cause too much pain. It’s not clear what will happen next if enough Republicans refuse to go along and don’t fully close the current budget gap.

Lawmakers have said they want to spare the colleges and universities, which have suffered 16 separate cuts over the past nine years, totaling $730 million in state general funds, according to the Board of Regents.

Along with using the rainy day fund, Edwards told lawmakers last week, his plan would cut “across a broad spectrum of the state budget, including, but not limited to, the Louisiana Department of Health, the Legislature, the judiciary and statewide elected officials,” his office said in a statement. He will not propose raising fees but will allow legislators to attempt to do so.

Edwards faces a high hurdle for winning approval to use the rainy day money — at least a two-thirds vote, which translates into a minimum of 70 votes in the House and 26 in the Senate, according to House Clerk Alfred Speer.

The 105-member House has three vacancies but still needs 70 votes, not 69, Speer said, based on a state Supreme Court ruling.

Republicans hold a majority of the seats in both the House and the Senate. But the Senate, under its political master, President John Alario, R-Westwego, usually supports the governor.

“I can’t see any way that we don’t do that,” state Sen. Norby Chabert, R-Houma said. “We need to utilize all the existing revenue we can.”

At least 39 of the 41 House Democrats will support Edwards’ rainy day request, state Rep. Gene Reynolds, of Minden, the House Democrats’ leader, said in an interview Friday after Edwards pitched the plan while meeting with House Democrats during a retreat at L’Auberge Casino in Baton Rouge.

Of the three representatives without party affiliation, Rep. Terry Brown, of Colfax, said he supports tapping the rainy day fund while Rep. Jerome “Dee” Richard, of Thibodaux, and Rep. Joe Marino III, of Gretna, said they haven’t fully made up their minds but are leaning in favor.

State Rep. Lance Harris, of Alexandria, heads the House Republican caucus and has become their point man on the budget. He has opposed using the rainy day money.

A group of 15-20 conservative Republicans surely will take that view because they oppose Edwards on virtually all of his spending and tax proposals.

All of these dynamics mean the governor will need to win over most of the 35-45 Republican moderates to get to the magical 70.

“The administration hasn’t made the case that we fully need to use it,” state Rep. Jerome Zeringue, R-Houma, said.

Like other undecided Republican moderates, Zeringue expressed concern that the rainy day money would constitute the use of one-time money for ongoing expenses. Gov. Bobby Jindal and the previous Republican-controlled Legislature resorted repeatedly to this gimmick to balance the budget, which prompted sharp criticism from Edwards, then a state representative from Tangipahoa Parish, as well as conservative Republicans known as Fiscal Hawks.

Edwards has said he has no alternative now because the budget situation is so grave with only several months before the fiscal year ends. This minimizes the options for cuts.

In an unusual move for a governor, Edwards made his appeal to some two dozen House and Senate members when he testified before the Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget on Jan. 27. But none of the moderate Republican or unaffiliated legislators said they have heard directly from him. In most cases, they said they have received only a call from Adam Keyes or Noble Ellington, the House legislative liaisons, asking where they stood on the issue.

State Rep. Julie Stokes, of Kenner, another undecided Republican, said Edwards could still win them over.

“There’s still plenty of space between now and the session,” she said, adding that she wants to see a comprehensive plan to solve the chronic budget deficits that developed during the Jindal years.

Rep. Tanner Magee, of Houma, yet another undecided Republican, said he is concerned that policymakers have drained too much of the rainy day fund. From a peak of $853 million in 2009, lawmakers and Jindal withdrew a total of $517 million, and lawmakers and Edwards took an additional $128 million in 2016, according to the Governor’s Office. The fund today has $359 million. The $119 million that Edwards is seeking is the maximum one-third allowed under state law and would leave the fund with $240 million.

“I want to make sure we don’t deplete the rainy day fund and not have it available for future and possibly worse storms ahead,” Magee said. “I’d like to talk with the governor and hear his case why we need to use the maximum now.”

Rep. Paula Davis, R-Baton Rouge, who is leaning against using the money, spelled out her thinking in a Facebook post last month:

“Sweeping rainy day fund money to pay for today's recurring expenses doesn't solve how we're going to pay for tomorrow's recurring expenses. It doesn't solve our systemic budget problems and simply avoids dealing with the underlying problems.”

Rep. Greg Miller, R-Norco, is also leaning against tapping into the reserve fund.

“Using the rainy day fund is just kicking the can down the road,” he said. “I’d rather make the hard choices now.”

Follow Tyler Bridges on Twitter, @tegbridges.