Yes, We Will Have A Special Session

We’ll see what John Bel Edwards actually has on tap for this, though so far it doesn’t sound like he’s going back to the well in an attempt to raise taxes.

Gov. John Bel Edwards said he will call for a special session to address Louisiana’s budget woes.

The special session would take place between February 13 and February 23.

Edwards made the announcement during an appearance Friday before the state’s legislative budget committee.

The latest projections have the state short $304 million for the fiscal year ending on June 30.

The governor said his plan to address the budget does not include new taxes or fees, but does require the use of the “rainy day” fund.

It also includes cuts to state agencies, including the Department of Health, though the governor said they aimed to avoid cuts to healthcare waivers that help the disabled and elderly.

The governor said the special session would allow them to spread the cuts around so as to not be “catastrophic” to higher education and healthcare.

If this session becomes a debate over where in Louisiana’s budget to cut, then that would indicate John Bel Edwards is more or less a spent political force. After all, Edwards took office last January spouting two things – the absolute necessity of tax increases, and a gigantic increase in the budget for the Department of Health and Hospitals, wrapped mostly around an Obamacare Medicaid expansion.

He’s likely going to have to give back some of that DHH budget increase, because if he doesn’t he’s going to have the higher education people screaming at him in the same way they were screaming at his predecessor Bobby Jindal – and given the failure to fully fund the TOPS program this year that’s already a sore spot.

What’s interesting about what Edwards is saying about his plan, namely that it’s all cuts and no taxes, is that it could signal some stiffening of the spine in the state senate.

On this week’s Red Bayou Show podcast, Sen. Conrad Appel said that there is a group of 12 Senators – but that the group is potentially growing – who are reliably opposed to tax increases at this time, which is two short of an effective coalition to kill new taxes. Those require a two-thirds vote, or 26 of the 39 members of that body. Getting 14 means tax increases are closed off as a possibility. And given how the state budget has always worked – it starts in the House, where lots of structural budget cuts go into a smaller bottom line, and then the Senate strips out those cuts and pays for them either with “one-time money” or some sort of revenue measure, and by the time the House gets the document back along with those revenue-raising measures the clock is running out and either they allow an unbalanced budget or they buckle to the Senate – it’s a big deal if revenues can’t survive on the Senate floor.

We don’t know whether Appel’s group has grown large enough to factor into this calculation or if Edwards is just worn out on taxes.

Or if Edwards is just getting ready to drop his tax bomb. After all, he pulled a little passive-aggressive move on the Baton Rouge Area Chamber earlier this week which indicated he’s not exactly a convert to the low-tax cause…

Baton Rouge Area Chamber President and CEO Adam Knapp said earlier this week that finding funding for a new bridge across the Mississippi River is BRAC’s top project priority for 2017.

But Gov. John Bel Edwards said Wednesday he doesn’t see at this point how the cash-strapped state will be able to do that.

“It’s difficult for me to commit to putting that bridge in the transportation package because it is such an expensive project,” Edwards said. “We certainly need to find a way to do it but there is a lot of disagreement whether the $700 million figure the transportation task force came up with is doable in light of what revenue is going to be available.”

A transportation task force appointed by Edwards last year spent six months studying the state’s transportation infrastructure needs and delivered its final report in December. The group says the state needs to raise $700 million a year in new taxes and fees—which it suggests could come from a 23-cent gasoline tax hike—to appropriately address the $13 billion backlog of road and bridge projects and the $16 billion worth of new mega projects, including a $1 billion new bridge in Baton Rouge.

“That is going to be very difficult,” Edwards said, though he said he supports the need for a new bridge.

“It is absolutely needed,” he said. “The east west corridor through Baton Rouge is the single highest priority transportation capacity project that needs to be addressed.”

In other words, “Sorry, fellas – if I don’t get my gasoline tax increase you’re not getting your bridge.” He admits a new bridge in Baton Rouge is the Holy Grail of the state’s infrastructure needs but he won’t actually prioritize it unless the state gets more revenue, and when asked about using private dollars for the bridge, which is something the Trump administration has signaled could be coming, he said he was for that but poo-poohed it by saying without some revenue piece the investors wouldn’t invest.

So we’ll see whether the early indications hold true. If the size of the state’s budget comes down rather than revenues going up as a result of this session it will be an indication that reality has penetrated the Capitol’s fourth floor. But if not, Edwards may fall victim to one of the dumbest presentations of political optics ever. After all, Edwards is just back from a swanky trip to see the Pope in Rome, where the security costs alone he ran up likely topped $100,000 to Louisiana’s taxpayers, and the first thing he does upon his return is to call for a special session to close a budget deficit. If the solution to that problem is a bigger bill to the taxpayers that trip will not look good.

Given that, this year’s special session is less likely than last year’s to be an orgy of tax increases. But that’s just a guess.

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