Stephanie Grace: After ‘break,’ tough budget slog continues _lowres

Sen. Eric LaFleur, D-Ville Platte, left, listens to a question from Sen. Mike Walsworth, R-West Monroe, right, holding his laptop and a copy of state budget House Bill 1, shortly before all but two Senators voted to send the bill on to the House, Wednesday, June 1, 2016 at the Louisiana State Capitol in Baton Rouge. LaFleur was handling the bill in the Senate for its author, House Appropriations Committee chairman Cameron Henry, R-Metairie. (Travis Spradling/The Baton Rouge Advocate via AP)

Lest anyone think our elected representatives lack senses of humor, several took to social media when Gov. John Bel Edwards announced plans to start a revenue-raising special session just a half-hour after the current regular session expires Monday. Typical was a comment by Lafayette Republican state Rep. Nancy Landry, who joked about her “huge plans for my 30 min break.”

It has indeed been a grueling year for legislators, administration officials and all the people whose work or passion brings them to the State Capitol day in and day out. Between former Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration’s short-sighted, presidential campaign-driven fiscal policies, lawmakers’ complicity and outside factors such as the oil bust, Edwards and the current Legislature walked into a big mess when they took office in January.

And despite uncomfortable votes in an earlier special session to raise more than a $1 billion in new revenue and a regular session dominated by how to cut an additional $600 million, their most daunting work likely is still to come.

One sign of the hard times ahead, ironically, was the easy time the Senate had Wednesday in passing a spending plan for next year. While the House had spent 14 tough hours hammering out its version of a state budget, the Senate breezed through its own debate in just about one hour.

The difference could well reflect the fact that, while some House members are holding out hope that the state spending plan lawmakers likely will adopt by the close of session will be somewhat definitive, most senators — who tend to be more in line with the Democratic governor’s agenda than leaders in the more conservative House — think the real shape of next year’s budget won’t emerge until they get down to business next week.

If there were no easy choices to start with, the options have become harder and harder as the weeks have ticked by.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Eric LaFleur, D-Ville Platte, and other Senate leaders are talking about raising an additional $300 million to $400 million to fend off the deepest cuts to the safety net public-private hospitals and the popular Taylor Opportunity Program for Students college scholarships.

Doing so likely would mean imposing tax hikes on many residents, on top of the sales tax increases and other measures the Legislature already approved earlier this year. The options Edwards offered up in his special-session call include a reduction in the excess itemized income tax deduction, which could raise $130 million, and a readjustment of brackets detailing income tax rates, which could bring in $324 million.

Not doing so, though, would mean the severe cuts lawmakers have adopted during the regular session would become reality.

The Senate budget funded just 48 percent of TOPS, which House leaders such as Appropriations Committee Chairman Cameron Henry, R-Metairie, had identified as a top priority. Based on newly passed legislation to spread any shortfall across the board, that would mean some 50,000 students would have to come up with half their tuition for the fall. Should a reduction of that magnitude survive a House-Senate conference committee and find its way into the adopted budget, it would give the administration some serious leverage in its push for new revenue.

Not surprisingly, there’s still plenty of talk of holding the line during the special session and hoping new money somehow materializes in the coming months to dampen the impact of the proposed cuts. Never mind that impossible dreams like that helped get the state into this mess in the first place.

Indeed, the Senate debate came off as an open acknowledgement that the spending plan lawmakers likely will adopt will be much more rough draft than final product.

LaFleur has said a third of any new revenue would go back into TOPS. As for restoring money for the severely threatened hospitals and other affected programs, he basically told his colleagues to sit tight.

“Those are things we will address in the special session,” he said.

So maybe lawmakers should heed Landry’s humorous missive and make the most of that brief break. It could end up being the last fun they have for a long time.

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