Gov. John Bel Edwards’ Tuesday morning budget presentation to the House Appropriations Committee was short, but it could have been shorter.
He could have simply said something like this: This is what austerity looks like.
Or maybe simply: Your move, Louisiana Legislature.
Edwards was there to outline, in broad terms, budget adjustments that his administration proposes for the fiscal year starting July 1, with cuts totaling some $792 million based on an expected revenue shortfall. Rather than sugarcoat the news or apply accounting gimmicks — both maneuvers that Gov. Bobby Jindal employed, Edwards took the opportunity to point out — the Democratic governor told the GOP-dominated committee that it’s simply impossible to fund what most people in Louisiana, “including people in this room,” view as vital needs with the money available.
Under his proposal, for instance, the TOPS college scholarship program wouldn’t be fully covered, even with an infusion of $50 million from savings from Medicaid expansion (he said he favors spreading the pain around rather than cutting off some students). Some of the public-private hospital partnerships in smaller markets wouldn’t be funded either, and Edwards said priority would go to preserve medical education and safety net services. K-12 education would take a hit as well, a prospect Edwards said he found particularly upsetting given his past efforts to increase education funding.
The undercurrent to Edwards’ address was that the Legislature needs to raise more revenue to avert all this pain, the sooner the better. In fact, Edwards asked that a tax reform task force now underway come up with some early recommendations, so that “we’re not doing something in June of this year and undoing it in April.”
During a brief question and answer period, state Rep. Walt Leger threw his support behind the governor’s desire to hold a special revenue session immediately after the regular session ends in June (the state constitution bars revenue-raising measures during regular sessions in even number years). Although the New Orleans Democrat acknowledged the idea would be unpopular with some of his colleagues, he argued that it would be a crime to make parents of children with severe disabilities wait and worry over whether they’ll lose state assistance. Edwards chimed in to argue that the TOPS issue needs to be settled before the start of the academic year.
Some House Republicans have been pushing back against the idea of a special session in June, though, and committee chairman Cameron Henry suggested that it could wait if lawmakers are able to move enough money around to meet immediate needs such as TOPS. One place to look for temporary cash, he suggested, is in money for recreation and tourism. Edwards countered that he’s heard from plenty of members who are upset at the prospect of state parks in their district facing closure. And while he insisted he wasn’t being flippant, he sure sounded that way when he told Henry, “good luck with that.”
‘Grace notes’ is a daily feature by Advocate columnist Stephanie Grace. To read more of her content, including her full columns, click here.