Gov. Edwards presents worst-case budget plan

BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - Before a packed committee room, Governor John Bel Edwards took the wraps off a doomsday budget scenario Monday. The plan guts TOPS, hits higher education, and includes a cut to various health programs.

Edwards describes the plan as "nasty," saying it's not something he would like to see enacted. "This is what falling off the cliff looks like," he told a panel of state lawmakers.

Under the proposal, the TOPS college scholarship program takes an 80 percent cut. Colleges and universities also see a reduction in funding.

The Department of Health sees a cut big enough it could put the state's partnerships with hospitals that treat the uninsured in jeopardy. Mental health and drug rehab programs see reduced funding. Healthcare waivers that provide help to the disabled also see a cut.

The proposal accounts for the state's projected $1 billion shortfall for fiscal year 2018-19, when temporary taxes, including a penny of the state's sales tax, fall of the books. Legislators had a chance to deal with that fiscal cliff during last year's session, but did not.

"If you all had done what I asked you to do, I promise you there wouldn't be a cut in TOPS in my executive budget proposal this year," Edwards told them.

The governor wants to have a special session in February to give lawmakers a chance to pass new taxes to fill in the shortfall and avoid the deep cuts. Some lawmakers are open to that idea, believing a special session is needed to create stability, especially for students.

"Without the guarantee of TOPS for some who earned it, they're going to select that college in Arkansas, Mississippi, and other places that are cheaper than our Louisiana tuition," said Rep. Katrina Jackson, D-Monroe.

However, Edwards says he wants a commitment from lawmakers on a plan to deal with the fiscal cliff before he calls a special session.

The governor laid out a tax plan in December, but that proposal has since faced push back from several Republicans, who argue there are ways to scale back state spending. "I believe there are other opportunities to reduce the budget, and would really appreciate if you all would spend the time to drill down on those," said Rep. Sharon Hewitt, R-Slidell.

Meanwhile, Edwards said he still has not received an alternative plan from House leadership for how to deal with fiscal cliff. "I cannot negotiate with myself. It doesn't work that way," Edwards said.

While no one has been able to put forward a plan they are comfortable with to cut $1 billion from the state budget, Rep. Cameron Henry, R-Metairie, a powerful Republican in the House, questions whether a special session is necessary and will not commit to any proposals. "You can't have a guaranteed victory before you do something. That's not how the legislative process works," Henry said.

RELATED: February special session? La. governor says he's not confident he'll call one

There is also some disagreement over how big the fiscal cliff truly is. Tax reform just passed at the federal level could lead to greater revenue for Louisiana, but how much exactly is unclear.

If a special session indeed happens, the governor's office says he is considering February 15 as a potential start date. If that's the case, the governor would have to issue a call for a special session sometime in the next two or so weeks.

Dr. Ray L. Belton, President-Chancellor of the Southern University System, issued a statement in response to Gov. Edwards' budget proposal.

In regards to Gov. Edwards' budget proposal to the Joint Legislative Committee this morning, I urge our lawmakers to consider our students, communities and the overall picture of what higher education and the Southern University System in particular bring to the State of Louisiana. I am confident that no one — including our legislators — want to see us "fall off the cliff." We all have the obligation to ensure that our higher education institutions fulfill their promise of a quality education, lifelong learning and success in the global workforce. It is my hope that a special session will be called in February to address these potentially disastrous cuts before we enter a new fiscal year.

The Louisiana Hospital Association also released a statement in response to the proposed budget cuts. The statement reads:

After hearing the Executive Budget for Fiscal Year 2018-2019 as presented today to the Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget, the Louisiana Hospital Association and its member hospitals and health systems are deeply concerned about the effects of proposed healthcare cuts of this magnitude.

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