State $313 million short; special session 'inevitable'

Source: WAFB
Source: WAFB

BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - A sizable, newly identified budget shortfall is prompting the governor's office to prepare for an emergency session.

"I think it is basically inevitable we are going to be in a special session," said Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne.

Dardenne and a panel of top state lawmakers adopted an estimate Friday that has the state short $313 million for the fiscal year ending June 30. State economists say the state's still struggling economy is fueling the shortfall.

"We are still losing jobs on a monthly basis," said state economist Greg Albrecht, referencing data that shows job losses going back to August 2015.

With fewer people working, the income tax and sales tax are generating less money for the state than expected. Corporate tax returns are also down. "We're going to have to be calling upon the entire legislature so we can spread the cuts that are going to be necessary as far as possible," Dardenne said.

The governor's office says the state constitution restricts what can be cut outside of a special session. Often times, that leaves healthcare and higher education as the main targets. "They've already hired their professors; they've got classes going. It would just be devastating to them," said Senate President John Alario, R-Westwego. He also said a cut to the Department of Health could put at risk contracts with the state's partnership hospitals that treat the uninsured.

Alario said he supports going into an emergency session, saying it would open up other parts of the budget to reductions, thereby sparing universities from yet another cutback. They have already been cut 16 times in nine years, according to LSU president F. King Alexander.

"I have said all along that I am not willing to place the burden of this budget crisis only on the backs of our hardworking families, students, or our most vulnerable citizens," Gov. John Bel Edwards said in a statement released Friday afternoon. "Today's action by the Revenue Estimating Conference clearly indicates the need for a special session."

However, not all state lawmakers are in agreement about the special session. House Speaker Taylor Barras, R-New Iberia, said the governor does not necessarily need to bring the entire legislature to Baton Rouge to balance things out. "I do believe we can accomplish this outside of the session," said Barras, who stressed that by combining rainy day funding with cuts to some statutory dedicated funds, they could spare higher education and hospitals deep reductions.

A date for the special session has not officially been set, though lawmakers said they are hearing it may begin sometime around Valentine's Day.

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