Waters Being Tested With Special Session

Calling a special session at the height of Mardi Gras season is a surefire way to get the attention of Louisiana’s legislators. And that indeed appears to be the course Gov. John Bel Edwards is plotting thanks to a $313 million deficit in the current fiscal year.

Perhaps because the state has been here before — one shortfall after another for nearly a decade now — the immensity of this challenge might be missed on some. Even if lawmakers tap the so-called rainy day fund for $119 million, as allowed by law, they would still have to cut as much as $194 million from the budget year that ends on June 30.

With the governor’s special session expected to begin in mid-February and conclude by the end of the month, that’ll give lawmakers only four months of government operations (March through June) to apply nearly $200 million in reductions.

Think about it this way: state government will need to cut on average $50 million in services and/or payments per month for the final four months of the fiscal year.

If nothing else, how the special session shapes up in terms of its policy agenda and how lawmakers react to it will give us a good preview of the regular session that’s slated to convene on April 10. It promises to be another tough one, with incoming tax revenue already projected to come in $400 million less than anticipated.

Adding to the drama for the regular session is an additional $1.5 billion in temporary taxes that roll off of the books in 2018 that the governor wants replaced or somehow addressed in the spring. Conservative lawmakers are already in a grumpy mood about those prospects and it’s doubtful that a special session — called just in time to interrupt Mardi Gras — will improve morale.

However, if Edwards can craft an agenda for the special session that’s agreeable to lawmakers, the resulting goodwill might help the regular session kick off on a positive note. This is a reasonable goal, especially since the special session is likely to focus on cuts and spending reductions, rather than the creation of new revenue like taxes.

Constitutional limitations demand that the governor and the Legislature’s Joint Budget Committee make cuts primarily to higher education and health care services when they’re faced with a deficit and not serving in a session. A special session, on the other hand, could allow the governor to issue an agenda that pops the hood on the entire budget.

The governor seems to prefer that option for a special session, since it would save health care and higher education from deep reductions. It would also mean that conservative lawmakers could take more of a structural approach to cuts, which is something they’ve long asked for. (What exactly is meant by the term “structural,” though, is still somewhat ill defined.)

The bottom line is that lawmakers and the Edwards Administration need to find a few new ways to work together and share some wins. The three legislative sessions from 2016 all had regrettable conclusions. Nothing good will come out of another shaky ending to another special session.

The governor, for his part, appears to be relying more heavily on ideas from the Legislature this year. He had a meeting last week with Senate President John Alario and House Speaker Taylor Barras and all walked away agreeing to explore different ideas.

Republican lawmakers actually started their own research meetings weeks ago and they’ve broken down into groups to better target certain subject areas.

Democratic lawmakers, meanwhile, have been taking part in weekly telephone conferences with the governor’s key staffers. In fact, the first such conference call of the calendar year produced more questions than answers, with lawmakers asking staffers for a detailed plan and staffers asking Democratic lawmakers what they were working on to keep pace with their GOP counterparts. Those talks have since been halted and are being replaced with personal meetings.

After three legislative sessions in 2016 that burned bridges and created sore feelings, and this new year in politics launching with a demand for solutions, the Capitol’s class of elected and appointed officials may have just one more shot to get it right. That opportunity will come in the February special session, and it could be the last chance they all have to set a new tone.

That need for a new tone cannot be overstated. The current fiscal year deficit is the 15th midyear budget shortfall Louisiana has seen over the past nine years. A lot of the pain was undoubtedly inherited from the previous administration, but we’re reaching a point where it’s all about to have a new owner.

Here’s hoping the February special session pushes us in a new direction.

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