It's official, state lawmakers will head into another special session

BATON ROUGE, LA (WVUE) - The seemingly perpetual state budget mess led to Governor John Bel Edwards issuing the official call for the latest special session Friday afternoon.

It will begin on February 13 and must conclude by midnight on February 22, but some area state lawmakers disagree about whether a special session is needed to address the $304 million budget shortfall.

"The governor has more than enough authority to not call us into special session," said Rep. Cameron Henry of Metairie, a Republican who is chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee.

Some lawmakers believe the governor and the Joint Legislative Budget Committee could have come up with enough cuts to wipe out the shortfall.

"The governor actually asked every department head at the beginning of this fiscal year to hold back five-percent of their budget, if the department heads did half of what he said we should be fairly close to being to cover the $304 million shortfall," said Henry.

But Sen. Wesley Bishop, a Democrat from New Orleans, is siding with the governor on the need for the special session later this month.

"Without a special session once again we'll be asked to look at health care and higher education which we've looked at every single time for the last eight years, or so. We all understand that for the last seven years we've under-funded higher education at 75-percent," said Bishop.

Last week during a budget committee meeting the governor assured lawmakers he would not propose new tax hikes.

"There will be no proposal from my administration to raise a single tax or a single fee," stated Gov. Edwards.

That is fine by both Henry and Bishop.

"As of the last session we have the highest sales tax in the country," said Bishop.

But the special session call has language which allows lawmakers to consider fee hikes if they so choose.

The governor also wants to use $119 million from the state's Rainy Day Fund to help address the shortfall, but some Republicans dislike that idea. And Henry thinks the state health department's budget has grown too big.

"Louisiana Dept. of Health's budget has increased an enormous amount over the past years. Seven, eight percent growth every year. That's pretty much unsustainable by any agency. That's roughly a $12 Billion dollar budget and an audit just came out that said that they're mismanaging hundreds of millions of dollars. So obviously there's some work that can be done there," said Henry.

The health department responded in a statement issued to FOX 8 News which reads:

"Almost all of the growth in the department's budget can be attributed to growth in Medicaid enrollment. As enrollment grows, so do costs, but 95 percent of this increased spending is paid by the federal government. The reality is that this infusion of federal money to our budget allowed the State to save $184 million this fiscal year, and that savings helped to offset cuts to TOPS and other vital state services.

During the session, lawmakers will have more areas to consider.

"Whether or not it's looking at some combination of repealing tax exemptions, tax credits, tax exemptions which we have $9 Billion of right now we can actually do that, but without there being a special session it makes it more difficult to look at those," said Sen. Bishop.

"Higher Ed and the Dept. of Health consume a significant portion of the budget, close to almost 75-percent of the budget, to take those off the table before we even start a conversation, I think puts all other departments in jeopardy," Rep. Henry stated.

"And people with family members who have mental and physical disabilities are nervous that services for them could be cut."

Bishop and Henry do not want to see such services curtailed and will work toward that end.

"I think we will and think there is a desire on behalf of most lawmakers to try and get that done. It doesn't do anybody any good when we challenge those particular waivers," said Sen. Bishop.

"For example, now waivers we've never caught NOW Waivers. We're not going to cut them in the special session and we're not going to cut them in the regular session, but the governor will scare those individuals into coming down, threatening the services, and again DHH's budget is roughly $12 Billion, NOW Waivers for example equal about $220 million dollars of that budget," said Rep. Henry.

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