By MELINDA DESLATTE, Associated Press
BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — A House Republican leader says he’s found a way to narrow Louisiana’s budget gap next year, but Gov. John Bel Edwards calls it a gimmick similar to the short-term fixes that have left the state struggling with financial problems for a decade.
The latest clash comes as conservative House GOP lawmakers and the Democratic governor remain at odds over the size of — and solutions to — an estimated $700 million shortfall that will exist when temporary taxes expire on July 1, the first day of the new fiscal year.
Rep. Lance Harris, chairman of the House Republican Delegation, suggested in a letter to the Edwards administration that Louisiana could use $150 million in unbudgeted cash from this year to pay one extra month of payments this year to the managed-care companies that coordinate services for 1.5 million Medicaid patients.
Under the proposal, the state would then only make 11 months of those payments next year, thereby lessening state costs and shrinking the budget hole.
“We need to reduce that gap, and this is one way to do it,” Harris said.
But that would only cut costs for one year.
Edwards said Harris’ proposal resembles maneuvers used by former Gov. Bobby Jindal to piece together budgets and shuffle costs, extending financial problems year after year when the short-term patches disappeared. Edwards said the maneuvers avoided making tough decisions about what taxes are needed to maintain government operations.
“That is not paying our bills. That is deliberately setting out to not fix our problems. It’s more of the can-kicking that we saw over the eight years before I became governor, and that’s just not acceptable,” Edwards said Wednesday on his monthly radio call-in show.
Harris said Edwards is rejecting the idea without consideration because the governor wants the state’s financial problems to appear worse as he urges lawmakers to support taxes in an upcoming special session. Edwards said without the replacement taxes, steep cuts would hit health services, the TOPS college tuition program and other education spending.
“He wants a bigger deficit to force taxes,” Harris said. “This is a typical response. First, they blame Jindal, and then they come up with a reason why we can’t do something.”
Louisiana is behind on one set of Medicaid payments to the managed-care companies. In his last year in office, Jindal pushed back a monthly payment to help close a midyear deficit. Edwards and lawmakers have continued to postpone that payment. It’s unclear when that extra month of payments will be made to get the state back on track.
The Edwards administration said it would consider using the unspent money from this year to pay off the back-owed debt — but not if Harris wants to then make only 11 months of Medicaid payments next year.
Harris included the Medicaid bill payment idea in a letter that also offered other ideas for using the money available in the current year, but he said the reworked Medicaid payment schedule is his favored approach.
He said House Republicans are looking for proposals to reduce the budget shortfall after being criticized for resisting taxes without offering detailed suggestions for ways to cut spending.