The budget challenges facing the state of Louisiana are not new, but there are very real consequences to the decisions leaders make to solve our problems. This week, the Legislature convenes in a special session to address our $304 million budget shortfall. We must solve this deficit in a thoughtful and deliberative manner that protects our most critical priorities to the maximum extent possible.
Let me remind you, we began this fiscal year $326 million short of what was needed to continue the same level of services the state offered in the last fiscal year. On top of that, the state has spent $246 million in flood response and recovery that was unbudgeted and made $313 million in general fund adjustments in December to address the shortfall from last fiscal year. All of these challenges combined have made the effort to address our current $304 million shortfall much more difficult.
As part of my plan, I have proposed the use of one-third of the state’s Budget Stabilization Fund. This $120 million will address less than 40 percent of the current deficit. I have also proposed budget adjustments that will make use of existing funds within state government and $60 million in spending cuts that will be more painful given that they are being made in the last four months of the fiscal year. However, I am not proposing a single tax or fee increase in this special session. The Budget Stabilization Fund, also known as the rainy day fund, was intended for this very purpose and was used four times under the previous governor when our problems were much less severe. To be very clear: Not using this fund during the special session will result in unnecessary cuts to essential state services such as education and health care. That’s not fear-mongering, scare tactics, or exaggerating; that is the reality. Let me remind those critics who are choosing to ignore these warning signs: Last year, thanks to the courageous work of a majority of the Legislature, these cuts were avoided — saving our hospitals, protecting waivers and stabilizing higher education.
I know this plan is not pleasant — no plan will be — but it is the best option we have to continue addressing the budget problems I inherited. This plan, in my view, is the smartest, short-term option to stabilize the budget until we can make the structural tax and budget reforms we need in the regular session that begins in April.
I am glad to hear so many of my colleagues in the Legislature signal their support of making reforms in the regular session. I could not agree with them more, and it is reassuring to know that members will return in April ready to make some bold changes that will allow us to reinvest in Louisiana’s priorities over time.
Some have criticized my plan to eliminate this shortfall and have suggested that the use of the rainy day fund would be wrong. These same individuals have indicated that funding for higher education, for example, should be cut instead. I will not continue to place the burden of balancing the budget on the institutions that train our leaders of tomorrow. To make matters worse, these individuals criticizing my proposal have not, and likely will not, offer a credible plan of their own. That’s not only wrong; it’s irresponsible. Certain lawmakers have made it a habit of criticizing nearly every proposal I make on any given topic, but they refuse to suggest any other options. I’ll be the first to tell anyone: If there is a better plan; show me, but simply criticizing and stonewalling is not an option.
It is our responsibility to get this work done. To not make use of every available dollar currently at our disposal would mean intentionally inflicting more pain than is necessary. In the meantime, the citizens of this state demand that we make choices today that will promote a stronger tomorrow for the state we all love.
John Bel Edwards is governor of Louisiana.