BATON ROUGE (AP) — What constitutes a budget cut? While the answer seemingly should be simple, like nearly anything else in the Louisiana Capitol, it depends on perspective.
As he readies for another round of budget slashing, Gov. John Bel Edwards said he and the Legislature already have made more than $850 million in reductions over his first year as governor. In January, the Democratic governor called them "painful government spending cuts."
That figure appears to exaggerate the impact of the situation, however.
While little argument exists the TOPS college tuition program is offering less to students, other items on the Edwards administration list seem a bit murkier as to whether they should truly be classified as a cut.
Is delaying the opening of a new juvenile lockup facility in Bunkie — not paying for something the state hasn't paid for previously — really a cut? What about eliminating dollars agencies didn't spend on employees because of a hiring freeze? How about using federal financing to pay for things that state dollars once covered, without lessening services?
Those are included in the governor's tally. They might not seem like cuts to the public.
Edwards spokesman Richard Carbo defended the figure Friday as intended to describe both cuts and areas where state government has saved money during the governor's tenure.
How much state government spends and how much it has cut amid nine years of budget shortfalls are particularly sensitive questions as lawmakers prepare to start a special session Feb. 13 to close the latest $304 million deficit.
Edwards is asking lawmakers to use $119 million from Louisiana's "rainy day" fund, rather than eliminating the whole gap through cuts. Even if lawmakers tap into the savings account, the governor warned "the cuts we will make this year will be deep, and they will be painful."
House Republican leaders say Louisiana government has grown too large. They question whether cuts will be as damaging as Edwards describes.
"There's a better start to the process than scaring folks to death with scenarios that are the worst-case possible when the math doesn't add up," Rep. Lance Harris, House GOP caucus leader, told Edwards at a recent budget hearing.
No question, agencies and programs have taken cuts since Edwards has been in office.
For example, K-12 public schools received $24 million less in the current 2016-17 budget than they got a year earlier. Colleges took a $12 million reduction earlier this year. The attorney general's office got less money this year than it did last year, as did the governor's office.
Awards from the TOPS college tuition program are only paying for 42 percent of tuition this semester because the program was $88 million short of what was needed to pay full tuition for all eligible students.
But the Edwards administration list also includes $184 million tied to the expansion of Louisiana's Medicaid program, which provides government-financed health insurance to the working poor.
It's hard to call that a cut when more people are getting services.
The state saved $184 million of its own tax dollars this year by tapping into enhanced federal financing rates for coverage it already provided to the poor and uninsured. In other words, the state's spending $184 million less of its own revenue — while adding billions in additional federal dollars to provide more health care.
Also on the Edwards administration list is $161 million in mid-year reductions made in December to help close an earlier deficit. That budget-rebalancing plan used savings from hiring and spending freezes and tapped into other pots of money to fill some of the gap.
House Appropriations Chairman Cameron Henry said true cuts tallied closer to $36 million.
"The net effect to some of these agencies was zero," said Henry, R-Metairie.
Edwards, department heads and some lawmakers say state agencies took so many budget hits during former Gov. Bobby Jindal's administration that new reductions will damage real programs and services, because they have no "fat" left to trim.
That debate will continue throughout the deficit-closing special session and in the upcoming regular session, when lawmakers consider whether to boost money for the state treasury as they rewrite Louisiana's tax laws.