Governor wants to suspend state worker pay raises next year _lowres

Advocate staff photo by PATRICK DENNIS --Gov. John Bel Edwards leaves a press conference following the closure of the 25-day Special Session of the Louisiana Legislatiure Wednesday. The regular session begins Monday. At right is Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne.

He didn’t use the exact words, but if you read between the lines of Gov. John Bel Edwards’ tough-talking news conference at the close of the special legislative session, you couldn’t help but hear the message: I told you so.

The new Democratic governor, who watched the GOP House majority celebrate his inauguration by rejecting his attempt to install a Democratic House speaker, wasn’t gloating. He’s not happy that his warnings about Washington, D.C.-style gridlock infiltrating Louisiana’s historically less partisan Legislature came true. But it’s the reality of the situation, and one major reason that lawmakers didn’t fully take care of the business of fixing a roughly $3 billion budget hole for the rest of this fiscal year and the one that starts July 1.

Progress was made, of course, and a package of steep cuts and tax increases will spread the pain around.

But lawmakers adjourned without finding $30 million for the rest of this fiscal year, meaning that Edwards will have to start whacking even more from health care, higher ed, corrections and other areas. When they reconvene for the regular session after a long weekend back home, they’ll have to pass a budget for next year despite an $800 million shortfall, all without further raising taxes, which is banned during non-fiscal sessions. Then they’ll likely gather for another emergency special session to find the missing revenue.

As Edwards pointed out, the choices aren’t going to be any easier in June than they were in February and March. And in the meantime, rating agencies could well take notice and downgrade the state.

In pointing his finger at the Legislature, Edwards didn’t name names. Instead, he spoke of a “lack of urgency” and “lackadaisical attitude.” That was a clear shot at House Republicans who delayed voting on relatively easy tax hikes on tobacco and alcohol, let alone more unpopular measures, and who were still holding out on major measures in the hours leading up to Wednesday’s 6 p.m. adjournment.

More pointedly, he decried a “broad-based refusal” to look far beyond higher sales taxes, which are considered regressive because lower-income residents spend a higher percentage of their money on consumer goods. Many Republican lawmakers fought for a business-backed plan to temporarily raise the sales tax by even more than the penny Edwards sought rather than seek more money from business or increase income taxes on higher earners. The idea was a non-starter among Edwards’ fellow Democrats.

“It’s quite possible that we have witnessed something” new here, Edwards concluded, as he finally invoked his earlier warning that Louisiana may go the way of D.C. “I will fight that with every fiber of my being.”

‘Grace notes’ is a daily feature by Advocate columnist Stephanie Grace. To read more of her content, including her full columns, click here.