Special session begins with frustrations over budget discussions

Special session begins with frustrations over budget discussions
Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne discussed the budget with the House Ways and Means Committee on Wednesday. (Source: Kaylee Poche/LSU Manship School News Service)

Kaylee Poche

LSU Manship School News Service

BATON ROUGE -- Members of the House Ways and Means Committee were notably frustrated when they met Wednesday to begin the special session's budget discussions, a conversation they have been having in some form for over two years.

However, not all of the 18 members were frustrated for the same reason, and the meeting quickly turned into an airing of grievances, some with Gov. John Bel Edwards and others with their own colleagues.

Several of the 11 Republicans on the committee, which must initiate tax and budget bills, told Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne they were upset that Edwards vetoed the budget passed by the Legislature that dealt with a $648 million shortfall solely through budget cuts.

While that budget would have fully funded health care priorities, it would have decimated state agencies with 24 percent cuts across the board, slashed TOPS scholarships by 30 percent and left Louisiana as the only state without a food stamp program.

That bill was created by the Senate after the House did not approve any revenue-raising measures in an earlier special session and then passed a budget that would eliminated most of the state's spending on health care.

Edwards, who has proposed extending a half-cent of sales tax set to expire this summer, said the House version of the bill could have forced hospitals and medical schools to close and prompted thousands of evictions of poor people from nursing homes.

Rep. Paula Davis, R-Baton Rouge, said she had viewed the final legislative budget as a framework to start the negotiating process in the special session.

"I was frustrated all weekend after the governor vetoed the budget," Davis said. "I don't think anyone was sleeping well during the whole process, and I don't think we're sleeping well now."

"I feel like the governor has continually tried to throw the House under the bus," she added.

Committee leaders said Wednesday that they need to learn more about the costs of any proposals and how they differ from previous ones before voting on any bills.

Other lawmakers, like Rep. Jim Morris, R-Oil City, worried that voting to raise revenue this year would set a precedent for continuing to raise more in the future.

"It's never enough," said Morris, the committee vice-chairman. "I'm tired of putting bandaids on compound fractures."

Morris also expressed frustration with his failed attempts in previous years to pass structural fiscal changes, policies he said could have kept legislators from having to return for another special session at all.

"The only thing I've done since I've gotten here is beat my head against the wall," Morris said. I'm trying to look at the blood and figure out whose it is, and I figured out it's mine."

Rep. Barry Ivey, R-Central, echoed Morris' sentiments, saying he would only vote for revenue- raising measures that were "a byproduct of structural reform."

"I believe we're creating more problems down the road by solving a budget hole instead of trying to solve the structural issues that keep us from being competitive," Ivey said. "I realize why Louisiana is shaped like a boot, because we're a kick-the-can state every time."

This is the sixth special legislative session in the past three years to try to solve the state's fiscal problems. Republicans hold solid majorities in both the House and the Senate.

But at least 27 of the 61 Republicans in the House refused to vote for any revenue-raising measures in the special session that collapsed in March. That forced other Republicans to try to make a deal with the Louisiana Legislative Black Caucus to avert some of the budget cuts.

The grim mood in Ways and Means on the second day of the session slashed some legislators' hopes of finding a compromise before the session adjourns on June 4. The possibility of a third special session, which would cost $60,000 a day, was mentioned several times at the hearing.

The concerns among Republican lawmakers also stood in contrast to comments this week by members of the Black Caucus that seemed to signal that they were more open to compromise.

"My mindset has changed, and I'm willing to do some things I wasn't willing to do before," said Rep. Ted James, D-Baton Rouge and a member of the caucus. "I love these folks, but I'm tired of seeing them."

Several Republicans asked Dardenne if the governor would veto a budget that only raised some of the $648 million. The rest of the shortfall would have to be closed by spending cuts before the fiscal year ends on June 30.

Dardenne replied that the governor would have to see what the Legislature came up with before deciding whether or not to veto it.

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