Gov.-elect John Bel Edwards backs Democrat Rep. Walt Leger III for Louisiana House Speaker; GOP bristles at notion _lowres

Advocate staff photo by BILL FEIG -- Then-Rep. John Bel Edwards, D-Amite, center, listens to Rep. J. Cameron Henry, R-Metairie, right, and Rep. John Schroder, R-Covington, left, meet in a back room of the House chamber during debate on the state budget in 2014.

The exchange between Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards and Republican state Rep. Cameron Henry last week could not have been more civil.

Edwards appeared before the House Appropriations committee to explain where he proposed to strike some $792 million from the budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1, in order to account for a whopping money shortfall.

Because lawmakers are constitutionally banned from raising taxes in the current regular session, Edwards also pitched a revenue-raising June special session, with an eye toward averting many of the deep cuts he described.

Henry, the committee’s chairman, warmly greeted the governor but quickly pushed back on the idea of a special session immediately upon adjournment. What if he and his peers could move some money around in the meantime to cover the shortfall in the popular Taylor Opportunity Program for Students college scholarships, and to make sure that families of kids with severe developmental disabilities aren’t left high and dry, he asked? That way, he said, the Legislature can wait for a budget restructuring task force to come out with recommendations in September.

“Good luck with that,” Edwards responded, quickly adding that he wasn’t trying to be flippant.

Sincere or not, the governor’s right. If Henry hopes to back up his position with action, he’s going to need lots of luck, and more.

The truth is that, as much as the budget mess Edwards inherited has forced his hand, putting him in the position of either cutting programs he and his backers support or raising taxes, Henry and his allies are now just as much on the spot.

A member of the fiscal hawks group that years ago challenged former Gov. Bobby Jindal’s use of budget gimmicks and tendency to put onetime money toward future expenses — criticisms that Edwards, then the Legislature’s Democratic chairman, seconded — Henry’s now in the position to find and cut the fat that he and his allies have long contended is there. He’s also dealing with a Republican caucus in which many members are loath to come back and take tax-raising votes again, so soon after they did so during the special session earlier this spring.

And no surprise, that task is proving awfully difficult.

For all their kind words, Edwards and Henry pushed two distinct visions of what should happen next.

In the hope of averting cuts, Edwards is emphasizing the pain he insists they’d cause, particularly in the always-vulnerable areas of higher education and health care. His proposal chops $110 million from the $300 million TOPS budget, so under current law, students whose ACT scores fall below a still-undetermined threshold would lose their scholarships. (Edwards also supports a bill to spread the TOPS cuts evenly rather than take an all-or-nothing approach). The governor’s proposed budget omits funding for public-private hospitals in Alexandria, Bogalusa, Hammond and Lake Charles. As for where to find the money, Edwards called on the budget task force to drop some hints about its intentions, so that “we’re not doing something in June of this year and undoing it in April,” or during next year’s fiscal session.

Henry countered that “one school of thought would be to allow that to fully be vetted” in September, “instead of having a special session based on what you think is going to happen.”

When Edwards said he wasn’t willing to wait that long — “We can’t fund TOPS in September. … The longer the disruption, the more havoc and chaos we cause for the people of Louisiana” — Henry suggested that lawmakers could find a way.

“We have the ability to fully fund TOPS,” he said. “We could maneuver some things around. … There are other options out there.”

One area he mentioned cutting instead was the Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism, a suggestion that prompted Edwards to note that many members are already upset about proposed park closures in their districts under his less-draconian proposal, and to wish Henry luck.

Whether or not he meant to be flippant, Edwards got his point across. Throughout the budget crisis, Henry and his allies have been asking for a chance to show that they can fund vital public services while keeping the lid on further tax hikes. They now have the chance to demonstrate that they can really do it — or to prove, once and for all, that they can’t.

Stephanie Grace can be contacted at sgrace@theadvocate.com. Follow her on Twitter, @stephgracenola.