By Paul Braun and Kaylee Poche, LSU Manship School News Service
BATON ROUGE — Gov. John Bel Edwards on Wednesday outlined cuts to higher education, criminal justice and assistance to needy families in a budget passed by the Legislature and made a pitch for renewing a half-penny of sales taxes to avert most of them.
He made the comments in his first public appearance since he sharply criticized House leaders at a news conference minutes after the dramatic conclusion of a special session Monday night.
Lawmakers passed a budget that would have funded the programs if there were enough revenue, but efforts to pass a revenue bill collapsed in the House.
Edwards struck a more optimistic tone Wednesday about raising revenue and funding the programs in an expected third special session.
“I look at these challenges as an opportunity to hit the reset button and achieve the stability that we want in the state of Louisiana, so we can move forward and take care of our critical priorities,” he said.
Under the budget bill, spending on public universities would be cut by $96 million, and funding for TOPS scholarships would be slashed by about 30 percent.
“If we start cutting again, we’re gonna lose our momentum,” Edwards said, and businesses will not have “the confidence in Louisiana to have the workforce that they need to be successful.”
Edwards said maintaining and eventually increasing higher education funding would create a more qualified workforce and lead to more investment by out-of-state companies. He cited projects in downtown New Orleans and St. James Parish that would bring a combined 3,900 permanent jobs and 8,000 temporary construction jobs.
Edwards touted recent efforts to reform the state’s criminal justice system and reiterated a promise to reduce the state’s highest-in-the-nation incarceration rate. He said that cuts in per-diem payments to sheriff’s departments, which house more than half of the state’s prisoners, would prompt some sheriffs to send the inmates back to overcrowded facilities.
“They’re going to want to bring them back,” Edwards said. “But we’re not funding the Department of Corrections either, so I don’t know what the hell we’re going to do with them.”
At the current rate, Sheriff’s Departments are paid about $24 per inmate per day, providing for only the most basic services. Even if the budget passed Monday is fully funded, the state money for the local housing of adult inmates would decrease by 16 percent.
“Every time there’s an unsuccessful reentry, you’ve created a new crime victim,” Edwards said.
Edwards discussed the budget cuts in a speech to the Association of Community Action Partnerships, a coalition of private and public organizations that serve low-income families in the state.
He also mentioned the cuts could impact the Department of Children and Family Services, a state agency that administers food stamps and heads the foster care system.
Edwards vetoed a budget bill last month that called for $34 million in cuts to the department. Much of that money would have been restored if either a Senate or a House version of the revenue bill had passed in the special session.
With Edwards’ support, the Senate passed a bill Sunday that would have extended half a cent of an expiring penny of sales tax to raise an additional $515 million to help reduce a projected $648 million budget gap. Republicans in the House had proposed limiting the extension to one-third of a cent, which would have raised $365 million.
Neither bill ultimately passed, and the only revenue raised during the special session totaled $87 million– $53 million from oil spill recovery money and $34 million from reducing an individual income tax break for taxes paid to other states.
Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne said Wednesday that state officials had not yet calculated what the cuts would be to various agencies since the governor has not decided whether to sign or veto Monday’s budget bill.
So even though the next fiscal year starts on July 1, state agencies are still uncertain if and by how much their budgets could be cut.
Dardenne said the budget the Legislature passed would only fully fund crucial health programs, including the public-private hospital partnerships and programs that would waive Medicaid income requirements for those with disabilities–two areas that were a subject of concern in the legislative sessions this year.
The Judiciary and Legislature itself are funded under separate budget bills in which their funding is given priority over state agencies if there is not enough revenue to go around.
The bill to extend a half cent of the sales tax fell six votes short on Monday. After a bill to renew a third of a cent also failed, a second attempt to vote on the half-cent bill was blocked in the last minutes of the session by Rep. Alan Seabaugh, R-Shreveport, who took control of the microphone to “run out the clock.”
The Louisiana House Republican Delegation released a statement Tuesday defending its decision to push for the one-third-cent renewal.
It said House Republicans were “crystal clear” in their opposition to increasing the size of government.
“Our state government will continue to grow out of control, taxes will continue to rise, and Louisiana will continue to fall in every conceivable category until someone says ‘enough is enough,’” the statement said.