Following three consecutive legislative sessions, each of which ended in confusion over just what lawmakers were doing — or not doing — to address the state’s historic budget shortfall, Gov. John Bel Edwards on Friday once again donned his Disappointed Dad face and told the press that he’d hoped for better.
At the end of the first special session, Edwards had bemoaned a chaotic last-minute flurry of votes that left many lawmakers clueless about the measures before them, and failed to completely fill the gap between revenue and spending. After the regular session, he’d pursed his lips over the House’s refusal to pass the state’s construction budget (the bill ultimately made it through during the second special session).
And early Friday morning, the governor said he had deep concerns over lawmakers’ late-breaking decision, at the behest of the House’s most conservative faction, to require the TOPS state college scholarships to be fully funded for the fall semester but less than half covered for the spring.
This will be the first year that the state won’t be able to pay full tuition for every student who meets the TOPS benchmarks. Lawmakers who pushed the change said it would give families more time to come up with the extra money, and they also expressed hope that the state would collect more than anticipated and make students closer to whole. But Edwards and his allies questioned the constitutionality of the move, argued that it doesn’t account for how financial aid is generally awarded, and said the decision once again delays the inevitable. He left the door open to a veto.
Despite all this, Edwards closed his latest post-session news conference with an optimistic pivot. He may be preparing to make $300 million in cuts, but he said he’s “extremely pleased with where we are considering where we started,” which was facing a $2 billion hole over two years.
“We made difficult choices, and we made tremendous progress,” he said, and “we avoided the catastrophic cuts that were imminent.” Direct funding to higher education didn’t drop for the first time in years, he noted, and the Legislature allotted the public/private hospitals enough to avert shutdowns or harm to medical education.
In fact, Edwards argued that the state has reached halftime in its quest for financial stability, with many successes on the books along with the ongoing challenges.
That’s one way of looking at it. A more pessimistic observer might peruse the calendar and see still more obstacles ahead.
Next year, lawmakers are expected to attack the vast web of business tax exemptions that helped get them into this mess, and every change will be hard-fought, and hard-lobbied. Edwards predicted Friday morning that some of the very same ideas lawmakers rejected this year might come around again, and said “there are many members who will have to be more courageous.”
Then, in 2018, many of the temporary tax increases passed earlier this year to address the emergency will expire, which means more tough votes, this time just as the 2019 gubernatorial and legislative elections loom. If lawmakers cringed at the campaign-style tactics that outside interest groups used to pressure them this year, well, just wait.
The politics of all this are dicey for Edwards as well. He’ll surely want to minimize the pain from budget cuts he now has to make in K-12 education and other areas. If he’s too successful, though, his critics will claim that he was crying wolf when he asked for even more tax revenue than they gave him. Plus, the longer he’s in office, the harder it will be to blame the state’s troubles on former Gov. Bobby Jindal’s irresponsible budgeting. So you can’t blame Edwards for hoping to have reached the halfway point on all this. Who wouldn’t want to move on to more pleasant matters?
Realistically, though, the epic fight over how much Louisiana should tax and spend is shaping up as the defining issue of his first term. Which means he’d better keep that Disappointed Dad face handy; chances are he’ll be needing it again soon.