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Hanna: Passing the buck

Next week, the panel that’s charged with forecasting state government’s revenues is expected to officially recognize a significant budget deficit in the current fiscal year.  Apparently, tax collections thus far in the 2016-2017 fiscal year aren’t as robust as was projected when state lawmakers put together a budget during their regular legislative session last year.

Estimates peg the deficit for the current fiscal year at anywhere from about $250 million to somewhere in the neighborhood of $450 million.  A common figure that’s been bantered about is $300 million.

Any way you analyze it or talk about it, cuts in spending must be made to balance budget because state law prohibits state government from running a deficit.

Last week, Gov. John Bel Edwards told a group of lawmakers in a somewhat private get together at the Oak Grove hunting lodge in Cameron Parish that he will call them into a special session in the very near future so they — meaning the Legislature as whole — can cut the budget.  The governor could do it himself, but apparently he’s not keen on taking the heat for cutting services the voting public expects the state to provide.

Maybe someone should remind Edwards that he’s the governor, and we expect our governor to lead.  Cutting the budget to balance it certainly would fall under the leadership category, as far governors go, or for what governors are expected to do.  But that’s another discussion for another day.

The call for the special session will be narrowed as such that lawmakers will be forced to cut higher education and probably some health care spending but not much else.  Some revenue measures will be in the mix, too, but let’s call it lagniappe.  Edwards knows the Legislature isn’t about to raise taxes to stave off mid-year budget cuts, but taxes will be on the table anyway because more than a few lawmakers will raise a fuss to raise revenues in lieu of cutting government spending.    

Tax increases will come later, or during the regular legislative session that’s scheduled to begin April 10.  Already we’re hearing discussions about raising the gasoline tax while that dreaded movement to eliminate the deduction individuals can take on their state income tax return for the income taxes they’ve paid the IRS is expected to surface again.   Between the two of them — the hike in the gas tax and the change in income tax deductions — roughly $1 billion in new taxes will be on the table for lawmakers to entertain in just a few months.  That would be in addition to the roughly $2.5 billion new taxes the Legislature has approved over the past two years.

As he did last year, expect Edwards to hold up the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students, better known as TOPS, as a proverbial piñata in the drive to gin up more revenues for government to spend.  In other words, Edwards will demand the Legislature raise the taxes he wants or he’ll whack TOPS again, which would be in addition to the cuts he spearheaded to TOPS last year.

Whether lawmakers realize it or not, Edwards will hand them an opportunity to show the governor that the budget can be cut without higher education taking a beating.  That would be the case if Edwards passes on cutting the budget himself and simply allows the Legislature to do the dirty work for him.

Though Edwards intends to limit the call for the special session, or keep a tight rein on what lawmakers can and cannot do during the session, there’s nothing stopping lawmakers from putting their own plan on the table to balance the budget regardless of the governor’s input.  In all likelihood, Senate President John Alario and House Speaker Taylor Barras would determine an alternative proposal to balance the budget was not germane, or relevant, to the governor’s call for the special session, but at least the general public would learn there’s more than one way to skin a cat.  In this case, another route to take to balance the budget instead of gutting higher education and health care.

Just a thought, but it’s a thought lawmakers should weigh before the governor passes the buck and blames them for doing what he should have done in the first place.

Sam Hanna Jr. is publisher of The Ouachita Citizen, and he serves in an editorial/management capacity with The Concordia Sentinel and The Franklin Sun. He can be reached at samhannajr@samhannajr.com

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