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Monday, Feb. 13, 2017

MORE BAD LUCK

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Democratic governor faces another crisis

One can’t help but feel some empathy for Louisiana’s Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards. It seems that if it were not for bad luck, there would be no luck at all. It is difficult enough to be the lone Democrat in a Red State facing a Legislature in which both houses are controlled by Republicans. But that is only the beginning of his story.

First off, there was the budget crisis. His first year in office, the state was tasked with finding $1.6 billion to plug a budget hole. Then came the devastating floods of March and August 2016. And as 2017 gets under way, the state has a $304 million budget hole to fill. As if that was not enough, along come five rare tornadoes that damaged 940 homes in New Orleans alone and caused damage in other south Louisiana communities.

After three grueling sessions in 2016, two special and the regular session, Edwards’ first year in office, the state is still facing a $304 million budget shortfall for the current fiscal year. As you read this, Edwards is knee-deep in a special session trying to come up with solutions. Easier said than done. The cornerstone of the governor’s budget plan includes taking $119.6 million from the Budget Stabilization Fund, also known as the Rainy Day Fund.

Some Republicans, led by Rep. Lance Harris, R-Alexandria, disagree with using Rainy Day funds and believe that more cuts to the budget is the answer. What Harris seems to have forgotten, prior to Edwards taking office, the state’s Rainy Day Fund has been used to stabilize the budget four times over the past eight years of the administration of Gov. Bobby Jindal for a total of $517.4 million. Those funds were used to eliminate budget shortfalls and were combined with various one-time funds to pay for recurring expenses. Where were these Republican legislators then?

Other highlights of Edwards’ plan include items that can only be addressed by the full Legislature during a special session:

• 2.5 percent reduction of state general fund to the judiciary – $3.79 million.

• 2.5 percent reduction of state general fund to the legislature – $1.65 million.

• Excess funds from the Louisiana Legislative Auditor to construct a new office building – $8 million.

• 5 percent reduction in statutory dedications from the attorney general – $1.9 million.

• Reduction in statutory dedications from the Department of Transportation and Development – $1.46 million.

• And taking a big hit in the plan is the Louisiana Department of Health to the tune of $127.8 million.

• The plan does not include raising additional taxes or fees.

Edwards notes that without the special session, cuts would be concentrated to the Louisiana Department of Health, higher education, K-12 education and the Department of Corrections – according to the state Constitution. As promised, Edwards’ plan does not include cuts to K-12 education (the per pupil allocation of the MFP), higher education, TOPS, waiver programs, the Department of Corrections or the Department of Children and Family Services. That’s the plan. How it will look after Republicans get through with it is anyone’s guess. But the budget hole must be patched by June 30.

Edwards was in Washington last week asking for more funds to help with recovery from last year’s floods. Louisiana has already secured $1.6 billion in federal aid, but Edwards said the state needs $2 billion more to make victims feel closer to whole. Edwards, using the Washington Mardi Gras as a spring board, planned to meet with the Congressional delegation and various federal agencies.

The latest disaster, of course, is the tornadoes. “Once again our state has faced another round of severe weather that has destroyed homes and communities, but we will rebuild,” Edwards said. He added, “The recent tornadoes throughout south Louisiana have only added to the ongoing hardships our people are suffering from following the March and August floods.”

The governor will return to Washington for the National Governors Association meeting later this month. At that time, he has a meeting set up with President Donald Trump for Feb. 24 to discuss the state’s problems. Let’s hope that partisan politics can be put aside as Democrat Edwards navigates through a sea of Republicans seeking help.

After years of budget shortfalls and mismanagement by the previous administration, there are no easy decisions anymore, Edwards has said. He went on to say that the people of Louisiana want politics put aside and problems solved.

What Edwards is dealing with is more than enough for anyone’s plate. But looming down the road is the regular session of the Legislature, which takes place April 10 through June 8, at which time bold reforms to the state’s broken tax code are expected. To be considered are several reform measures recommended by a bipartisan task force that will give businesses and families predictability and stability in the tax code, while bringing in sufficient revenue to fund state government.

Enough already. Louisiana has had its share of budget problems and natural disasters. Let’s hope the months ahead will provide more optimism.

Lou Gehrig Burnett, an award-winning journalist, has been involved with politics for 44 years and was a congressional aide in Washington, D.C., for 27 years. He also served as executive assistant to former Shreveport Mayor “Bo” Williams. Burnett is the publisher of the weekly “FaxNet Update” and can be reached at 861-0552 or louburnett@comcast.net.

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