Special session? La. House speaker offers budget reform ideas

Speaker Taylor Barras, R-New Iberia (Source: WAFB)
Speaker Taylor Barras, R-New Iberia (Source: WAFB)

BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - Will they reach a deal in time? Lawmakers are coming down to the wire on reaching an agreement for how to fix Louisiana's projected $1 billion fiscal cliff.

The Edwards administration is aiming to kick off a special session on February 15, meaning the governor would have to issue the call in the next week or so. However, the governor wants a plan in place before he does so. So far, he says he's only so confident an agreement "in principle" can be reached.

"I think it's about 50/50, and I hate to hedge that way, but that's just where I'm at right now," Governor John Bel Edwards said during an interview Tuesday. "Clearly, we're running out of time."

A $1 billion shortfall is projected for fiscal year 2018-19 when a penny of the state's sales tax falls off the books. The penny was a temporary measure, passed in 2016 by lawmakers to deal with that year's fiscal cliff.

As part of negotiations, Republicans want something in return: budget reform.

On Tuesday, Speaker Taylor Barras, R-New Iberia, took the wraps off a list of budget reform proposals. They include work requirements and co-pays for Medicaid patients, as well as an online database of state spending. They also want to cap the annual growth of state spending.

"There are those that are willing to look at some revenue, so long as there is reform," said Rep. Jack McFarland, R-Jonesboro of his Republican colleagues. "There could be some sort of compromise, I believe."

The reform ideas are not necessarily new; some have been proposed in the past. They also will not necessarily create any major savings during this fiscal year.

In a statement, the governor wrote that he appreciates the speaker's ideas, calling them "a positive development in our ongoing discussions." However, he noted he is still waiting for ideas on how to address the actual fiscal cliff.

Last week, Edwards took the wraps off his worst-case budget plan, accounting for the $1 billion shortfall. It cuts the TOPS college scholarship program's funding by 80 percent. It also includes cuts to mental health and drug rehab, along with enough cutbacks to the health department that Edwards believes it could put the state's partnerships with hospitals that treat the uninsured in jeopardy.

RELATED: Gov. Edwards presents worst-case budget plan

Without a special session in February, the fate of TOPS, higher education, and hospitals will remain in question throughout most of the spring. Lawmakers cannot raise taxes during this year's regular session.

A group of lawmakers from both parties believe the governor should call a special session regardless of whether a deal is in place.

"Keeping this much uncertainty is not good for the state, it's not good for its citizens," said Rep. Tanner Magee, R-Houma.

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