Say Washington and the first thought is, the place where nothing gets done.
But even during the partisan gridlock a few years ago — with the nation days from financial default — there’s also the image of Democratic President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner, then the head of the GOP majority, smoking cigarettes and sipping merlot on the White House’s Truman balcony, looking for common ground.
Back in Baton Rouge, Gov. John Bel Edwards and House Speaker Taylor Barras met Thursday — their first sit-down since March 9.
For eight years, Louisiana has come perilously close to a financial meltdown only to be saved in the final seconds when lawmakers pushed the button of fiscal hocus pocus to stop the bomb from blowing up. In the 2016 sequel, legislators used cuts and taxes to cover a $2 billion deficit during last month’s special session, but still came up about $750 million short.
Usually programs for lower-income residents bear the burden of balancing the budget. The proposed cuts in Edwards’ budget now include a politically popular middle class entitlement. TOPS, which pays college tuition for students meeting modest academic requirements, is slated to receive only about a third of its needs. That means about 33,000 college students and their parents may have to come up with tuition money out of pocket — up to about $9,000 for a year at LSU.
Tax issues, constitutionally, can’t be discussed in the regularly scheduled even-year assembly, only spending cuts. So, Edwards has been saying in speeches, on the radio and in press conferences that another special session is needed after the regular session adjourns June 6 to raise enough money to mitigate some of those more onerous spending cuts.
When the Democratic governor sat down with the head of the Republican majority in the House on Thursday, Barras, of New Iberia, asked what direction does Edwards want to go? What does Edwards hope to accomplish in a Second Extraordinary Session of 2016 and beyond?
“We had a very frank discussion about the budget and the likelihood of a second special session,” Edwards said.
The GOP is hoping that the committee that officially determines how much money is available to spend — the Revenue Estimating Conference — will recognize new revenues when it meets again on May 12. It is hoped that when the new money is coupled with a different array of cuts than the governor proposed, popular government programs, like the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students, will be reprieved.
Edwards isn’t optimistic.
“They’re just looking at the tea leaves,” he said. Pretending the budget is in balance and praying for better revenues in the future is how the state got into this mess, he said. “I am determined that we are not going to stay on that road,” Edwards said.
Appropriations Committee Chairman Cameron Henry said he’s pretty sure that TOPS can be fully funded. He’s less certain of just how.
He’s planning to hold House hearings and vote for House Bill 1 — state government’s budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1 — on May 12 and May 13.
Henry paused for maybe 10 seconds when asked the last time he met with Edwards.
Aside from the governor’s April 12 testimony before Appropriations? “Back during the special session, I think,” recalled Henry, a Metairie Republican.
Henry’s open to talks. But the process, really, is for the members to throw out their budget-balancing ideas as amendments during Appropriations committee hearings and see which ones float enough votes to survive. What legislators have been telling him of late is that they’re leaning towards across-the-board spending cuts for all agencies, coupled with continuing through next year the reductions made during the first special session. Maybe, there’s some way to work with the fees agencies are asking legislators to approve and, perhaps, some way to rearrange one-time money to free up other dollars to pay for recurring expenses, Henry said.
Chief of Staff Ben Nevers, Edwards’ top aide, said the hope for the special session is to fix the budget, while also getting started down the road to permanently repairing a fiscal system that’s chronically short of funds. The Fiscal Review Committee’s recommendations — due in a few weeks — should provide a map, he said.
In the meantime, however, the plan on the table is to ask legislators to cut popular government programs, like TOPS, then a couple weeks later, vote to raise taxes. That’s win-win, but only for the media consultants who’ll be making attack ads in the next legislative campaign.
Mark Ballard is editor of The Advocate Capitol news bureau. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org and is on Twitter @MarkBallardCNB. For more coverage of government and politics, follow our Politics Blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog/.