BATON ROUGE, LA (WVUE) - Governor John Bel Edwards called for an end to partisanship in his Valentine's Day speech during the opening day of the special legislative session at the state capitol.
After walking into a joint session of the state house and senate to warm applause, Governor Edwards did not waste time getting to the heart of the matter.
"I did not call you here to continue to put off the tough decisions, we've done that for too long," he said.
Edwards, a Democrat, inherited a budget deficit of nearly a billion dollars from the Jindal administration for the current fiscal year and the new is worse in terms of the funding for the budget year that begins July 1. The money shortfall for the 2016-2017 fiscal year is estimated to be $2-billion.
Still, to get his agenda through Governor Edwards must work with a republican controlled legislature. "I'm asking everyone to shed partisan labels and blinders and work with me to repair the state that we all love," he said during his speech.
"I think we do need to lay aside the partisan labels and I think one of the most important things that we need is just honesty and transparency. We need to look at the numbers, I'm a CPA, I believe if you look at the numbers and numbers don't lie," said Rep. Julie Stokes, R-Kenner.
The governor proposes a mix of tax increases and spending cuts.
He addressed those who say he failed to mention tax hikes when he ran for office.
"I have heard my critics say I've changed my tune on raising taxes, my response is this in a crisis when the facts change as dramatically as the facts surrounding our budget have, so must the solutions change," said the governor.
He also made it clear he is already making cuts to state spending.
"I want to quiet those critics who say I am not proposing spending cuts. The plan I am presenting to you includes at least $160 million in painful cuts. I have met my constitutional obligation with regard to cuts with an executive order signed earlier today, and I have further asked the Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget to make additional reductions. Now it's your turn. You have the ability to approve an additional roughly $30 million in cuts that I have proposed. And you should be mindful that, whatever supplemental appropriations we have, but we can't afford, will be cut as well," said the governor.
His plan also includes a hiring freeze across state governmental agencies and a reduction in state contracts. The governor would like to use $128 million from the state's "rainy day" fund and $200 million in non-coastal BP payments to the state. Among his tax proposals is a one cent increase in the state sales tax, and higher taxes on cigarettes and alcohol. He wants further reductions in costly state tax credits, as well. But many republicans in the legislature remain unconvinced that tax hikes are needed, while some others are keeping an open mind.
"He only proposed only about $160 million in cuts himself when you're looking at over a $900 million deficit, so obviously we have to go in and continue to look for more cuts, as well…As regards to increasing sales tax by a penny, I think that's a very difficult sell to the legislature right now," said Rep. Cameron Henry, R-Metairie.
But some democrats and republicans agree with the governor that cuts alone cannot back down budget deficits that are called historic.
"You have some people say all we can do is cut, cut, cut, let me tell you this, Bobby Jindal was the best at cutting, if we were a human body you'd have nothing left, so yeah you can cut some more but you're going to cut your leg or our arm off, we're done with just doing cuts," said Rep. Helena Moreno, D-New Orleans.
"I'm not wild about new forms of revenue but in the same way I'm not wild about having a $2-billion deficit that may force the closure of some hospitals and universities, or just drastic, so you got to deal with it," said Sen. Danny Martiny, a Republican from Kenner.
The governor repeated that without more revenues flowing into the state's bank account in coming months, cuts to state funded healthcare and colleges and universities will be catastrophic.
"If these cuts are allowed to proceed, universities and community and technical colleges will not be able to male payroll. Universities have informed me that campuses will begin closing as soon as May 1st," he said.
"I don't think we're going to get out of here successfully accomplishing all the goals that people have for TOPS, Higher Education, for health care without some form of revenue," said House Speaker Pro Tem Walt Leger, a Democrat from New Orleans.
"I think he's being honest, I think he's being fair, I have six universities in my district and I've talked to all six of those university heads and they're saying these problems are actually real," said Sen. Wesley Bishop, D-New Orleans.
The governor was asked whether his plea for lawmakers of both parties to work will be enough to get Republicans to support his agenda.
"They're vehemently opposed to tax hikes but they don't like these cuts either, so they're going to have to make their minds up," he replied.