The 2016 special session of the Louisiana Legislature began Sunday, and a combative Gov. John Bel Edwards immediately challenged critics who say more spending cuts are needed to dig the state out of its budget crisis.
“There are some that will tell you we have a spending problem,” Edwards told a joint session during a 20-minute address.
“That simply ‘tightening our belts’ will eliminate this historic deficit but let me be clear: We can’t just cut our way out of this crisis,” he said.
The Democratic governor’s comments touch on the key issue of the three-week session — whether state leaders can forge a consensus on tax hikes and spending cuts to offset a shortfall of up to $940 million by June 30.
“Today we face the largest budget deficit in our state’s history,” he said. “As I see it, how you respond to this call — how I, how we — will determine the course of Louisiana’s future.”
Some key Republican leaders, including state GOP Treasurer and U.S. Senate candidate John Kennedy, have argued that Edwards’ plan puts too much emphasis on tax increases.
House Appropriations Committee Chairman Cameron Henry, R-Metairie, said the governor’s proposed spending cuts — $160 million — are woefully inadequate.
“You are not even meeting halfway at that point,” Henry said in an interview after the speech.
“We spend more money than we make,” he said. “That is just a fact right now. We have to get away from that.”
But the governor repeatedly challenged that notion.
“So I ask you, when someone comes to you and says we can cut our way out of this crisis, that we have a spending problem and not a revenue problem, that there are painless options that solve the problem and they point to studies that are 15 and 20 years old, you should demand specifics,” Edwards said.
Higher education and health care stand to suffer the biggest reductions because state budget rules shield many other state services.
Edwards addressed a packed gallery in the Louisiana House chamber, where he served for nearly eight years, and where he sat on the last row until his surprising and successful run for governor last year.
The governor’s plan includes a 1 cent hike in the state sales tax, generating $216 million; redirecting part of the noncoastal restoration part of the BP oil spill settlement to the state, $200 million; tapping the state’s Rainy Day Fund, $128 million; and increasing the cigarette tax by 22 cents per package, $17 million.
Bills to enact those proposals were being filed Sunday night but, by early evening, the sure-to-be-controversial sales tax increase was not among them.
The administration says the budget crisis stems from plummeting oil prices, less-than-expected individual and corporate income revenue and irresponsible budgeting by former Gov. Bobby Jindal.
The state faces a $2 billion shortfall for the financial year that begins on July 1.
In another pointed message, Edwards rebutted critics who said he did a flip-flop on tax hikes compared with what he promised on the campaign trail.
He said he had to change his proposals because the state’s financial crisis worsened after he was elected on Nov. 21.
“Since then, the number has grown from $487 million to a staggering $940 million today,” he said.
Edwards added later, “So if you insist on saying that I never said I would raise taxes, that I’m going back on my word, that’s fine.
“Say it. Get it out of your system, and then please come back here ready to work with me to do the job we were all hired to do,” he said.
That line sparked the biggest, mostly Democratic ovation of his speech that was interrupted about a dozen times by applause.
Tensions already exist between Edwards and the GOP-controlled Legislature, especially in the House.
House Speaker Taylor Barras, R-New Iberia, was elected speaker last month over the governor’s choice of state Rep. Walt Leger III, D-New Orleans.
Barras’ surprise selection was a break with legislative tradition — lawmakers usually defer to the governor on leadership posts — and a stinging setback for Edwards just before he took the oath of office.
House Ways & Means Committee Chairman Neil Abramson, D-New Orleans, whose panel will start reviewing revenue-raising measures on Monday, said he is optimistic state leaders will strike a compromise “if we put down the partisanship and work together.”
Henry was blunter.
“I think before you can get any revenue measures moving, members want to exhaust everything as it relates to cuts,” he said. “I think that is the easiest way for members to get comfortable where we are as a state.”
The governor cited several in the audience to help make his case, including Kodi Wilson and her son, Braden, who has Leigh’s disease.
Edwards said the family is at risk of losing vital state aid if Louisiana’s financial problems are not fixed.
Before the governor’s speech, several hundred families with disabled children and health care workers rallied at the State Capitol, then listened to Edwards’ speech inside the chamber.
“You shouldn’t have to choose between colleges and children,” said Jackie Blaney of the Supported Living Network, which helped organize the rally.
Jessica Michot, of Denham Springs, said her family would have to file for bankruptcy if lawmakers make more cuts in the program that provides in-home care for her disabled son.
“There’s no feasible way we can survive as a family,” she added.
Mark Ballard of The Advocate’s Capitol news bureau contributed to this report. Follow Will Sentell on Twitter, @WillSentell. Follow our Politics Blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog/