BATON ROUGE, LA (WVUE) - Gov. John Bel Edwards laid out his agenda for the regular legislative session which began Monday afternoon at the s\State Capitol, and Edwards also made it clear he wants another special session to fix the fiscal cliff that is scheduled to happen when a billion dollars in temporary taxes roll off the books July 1.
Edwards entered the House chambers to polite applause for a speech to both House and Senate members.
His regular session agenda includes reducing the number of careers that require state occupational licenses, cutting regulatory red tape for small businesses, more education to prevent hazing on college campuses, raising the minimum wage to $8.50 an hour in the state and targeting poverty.
But the biggest concern is the $700 million shortfall in the budget propsed for the new fiscal year.
Edwards told lawmakers he wants them to work quickly during the regular session so that another special session can be called within the regular session's time frame to consider new revenue-raising measures. Because it is an even year, such items are not allowed in the regular session.
"Our constituents want us to do better. That is why we should have fixed the fiscal cliff when I gave you the opportunity a couple of weeks ago. However, many of you have suggested that the fiscal cliff can be fixed simply by making cuts. I think what many of you will find is that it's much harder than it seems because when you cut funding you cut services that many people in this state rely upon. But if that's what you truly believe now is your opportunity." Edwards said.
"From what I see, I don't see a lot of flexibility for it to cut that much, and I'm concerned that what is above and beyond the bare necessities is not things that we generally will want to cut but where Appropriations and Senate Finance can find that room to reduce costs and find efficiencies. I am excited that they will find it," said Rep. Julie Stokes, R-Kenner.
"I think anybody who thinks that we can cut $700 million out the budget and still function as a government isn't being very realistic. I think it's going to take a combination of cuts and revenue measures to get there, we can't cripple the state, we can't continue to cut health and hospitals and higher education, nor can afford to tax our working class people to death, either," said Sen. Troy D-New Orleans.
"I think he's laid out some serious problems we have in this state, number one being the budget that we need to address. We need to come to some agreement as to what the funding should be for this state and figure out a way to pay for it," said Sen. President John Alario, R-Westwego.
"I hope that folks went home for the last seven days and got to get some feedback from their constituents. What I got back was that people were totally frustrated that we weren't able to come here as a body and put people first, and that were politics that were driving many of the decisions," Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, D-New Orleans.
"There's nothing different or wrong about us not coming to an agreement last time. It's a process, it doesn't end until June. We should never have had the pre-special session in the first place. It was a mistake. Now we can do it properly, we can get the Revenue Estimating Conference meeting down, find out how much money we have to really raise and then determine how much we really want to spend," Sen. Conrad Appel, R-Metairie.
Edwards said higher education, including the popular TOPS scholarship and state-funded health care, would be the most vulnerable to deep cuts without new revenues. And he scolded lawmakers for ending a special session a week ago without resolving the looming budget crisis.
"Very soon we're going to have another opportunity, our last opportunity to fix the fiscal cliff as we should have done in the special session. If the recent warning sign from one of our credit rating agencies is not enough to urge us to act, perhaps this story will be. I just heard of a young man that's heading off to college next fall from Dutchtown, he had a 33 on the ACT, he's an eagle scout, a model student right here in our state. After the last special session unfortunately, he is leaning towards to going to Alabama rather than LSU because of the uncertainty of this TOPS scholarship," the governor told lawmakers.
Some lawmakers applaud the governor for wanting to help small businesses, others said his proposal does not go far enough.
"I'm particularly excited about fighting for the small business council that he talked about creating. I'll be working on that legislation, trying to find ways to enhance the opportunities for businesses, creating jobs, making money, and drive the state's economy in a different direction," said House Speaker Pro-Tempore Rep.Walt Leger, D-New Orleans.
"That was a tiny little step. I think it's a good talking point, but helping small business is extraordinarily important but that means tort reform, it means new infrastructure, it means reform of education systems, it doesn't mean a minor little tweak to not regulating florists," said Sen. Appel.
And many wonder if the legislature will embrace equal pay for women this year. Edwards has pushed for that and a higher minimum wage before but failed.
"They keep saying that it's bad for business. If you take a look at all these different studies, it's actually good for business to promote paying men and women equally. Maybe this is the year, I'm certainly going to be fighting for it," said Rep. Helena Moreno, D-New Orleans.