Attention Turns To Next Special Session, REC & Budget

Gov. John Bel Edwards has scheduled a press conference following today’s adjournment of the House, which meets at 4 p.m. It’s yet another sign that the ongoing special session could come to a crashing halt this afternoon — and that plans for another special session this summer are already being put together.

With that harsh reality looming over lawmakers, alongside an unresolved budget shortfall that could be as high as $994 million, politicos are turning their attention to what comes next. The regular session convenes March 12, and it’s highly likely that the bad feelings that permeated the first special session of the year will carry over to that policymaking gathering.

Between now and the opening of the regular session, the Revenue Estimating Conference is also expected to meet. The REC is charged with determining how much money the state has to spent, and it’s quite possible that its membership will recognize some new revenue, thus decreasing the overall shortfall.

At least that’s what conservative lawmakers are hoping for as they inch ever closer to a second special session. If the REC does identify new sources of revenue and the shortfall shrinks as a result, that will mean lawmakers could be faced with fewer tax votes to balance next fiscal year’s budget.

Calling another special session — the sixth this term and the second of this year — sooner than later would fit snuggly into the governor’s developing narrative of an administration trying to do everything it can, only to find a persistent bottleneck in the House. But after blowing $50,000 to $60,000 a day on a failed special session that began on Feb. 19, a keen eye will have to be given to justifying the price tag for another such gathering.

That’s probably why legislative leaders and administration officials have been considering ending the regular session early in order to hold the second special session of the year. That would allow the Legislature to save a bit of cash, since the regular session would otherwise be taking place.

If another special session is called, the next question centers on the budget, or rather how it would be treated in the coming regular session. While lawmakers are legally bound to pass a balanced budget, the Legislature technically has until the end of the fiscal year on June 30, not the end of the regular session.

So will lawmakers pass a budget with a nearly $1 billion hole, or slightly less, depending on the actions of the REC? Will no budget be passed at all? Could a budget be passed with contingencies based on revenue generated during a second special session?

Even if representatives do manage to send a cut-heavy bill to the floor during the regular session, Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne said he doubted the document could garner enough support to move to the upper chamber. He expects lawmakers to wait “until the last weeks of June” to pass a budget that will contain new revenue and spending cuts.

Senate Finance Chair Eric LaFleur, D-Ville Platte, said he could envision a scenario where lawmakers actually pass a balanced budget, cuts and all, during the regular session. “If they do anything other than that, it would be malfeasance,” he said of the House, where the budget bill must originate.

House Appropriations Chairman Cameron Henry, R-Metairie, can also imagine a cut-heavy bill moving through the Legislature. But he added that he’s willing to defer to the House’s budget-writing panel, which he heads up. “What members decide to do with that in committee is up to them,” Henry said.

From the outside looking in, Louisiana Budget Project Director Jan Moller said he “can’t imagine” the governor signing off on a budget with nearly $1 billion in cuts, no matter how many lawmakers vote green.

That likely means, short of a special session miracle this afternoon, that June will be the month for real budget crafting.

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