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Wednesday, April 24, 2019

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Dardenne: Budget woes too deep to fix without new money

Dardenne: Budget woes too deep to fix without new money

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Gov. John Bel Edwards' chief budget adviser pushed back Monday against criticism that the Democratic governor has been too quick to propose tax hikes to balance Louisiana's budget.

Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne, a Republican, said Louisiana's financial troubles are too deep to be corrected without raising new money for the treasury. Absent new revenue, Dardenne said, public colleges and health services would face devastating reductions.

He said suggestions that Louisiana can fix its financial gaps only with cuts or simply by removing protections that shield some budget areas from slashing aren't realistic. Dardenne said cutting more than $700 million from this year's budget and $1.9 billion in next year's budget to close the estimated gaps would be a "doomsday scenario."

"It's time to be honest about our budget instead of simply telling people what politicians think they really want to hear," Dardenne told the Press Club of Baton Rouge.

Edwards plans a three-week special legislative session to begin Feb. 14, asking lawmakers to raise taxes. The governor has offered a list of proposals, such as boosting sales taxes, raising taxes on cigarettes and alcohol, cutting tax break programs for business and increasing taxes on middle and upper income brackets.

But it's unclear whether Edwards can get enough support from a majority Republican Legislature to pass tax bills that in many instances require a two-thirds vote.

Senate President John Alario and House Speaker Taylor Barras, both Republicans, have indicated a willingness to consider tax increases to offset at least part of the budget gaps.

However, some individual lawmakers — particularly in the House — have been resistant to the idea of any tax hikes. Republican Treasurer John Kennedy, a candidate for U.S. Senate, also has publicly criticized tax increases as the wrong approach.

Few Republicans have offered specific cut proposals that would close the entire budget gap. One area Kennedy and other Republicans have discussed involves unlocking protections that keep hundreds of millions earmarked to specific programs largely shielded from cuts.

The Edwards administration is proposing across-the-board cuts of 10 percent to many of the protected funds in the current budget year, to save $160 million. But Dardenne said even if many of those so-called "dedications" were unlocked entirely, he doesn't believe people would want to eliminate the spending on the programs that receive the money.

He said the earmarks pay for items like assistive technology for the deaf, a New Orleans cancer center, worker training programs, economic development projects and gambling enforcement. One protected area totaling $113 million, Dardenne said, pays for coastal restoration projects.

Edwards spoke Monday to GOP lawmakers gathered at a retreat in Lafayette about the state's financial problems. Dardenne talked with the group earlier in the day.

"There was certainly not a sense there that the Republicans have gathered together for the purpose of preventing anything from happening by the way of revenue," Dardenne said. He said he appealed to them "not to have a mission of partisan gridlock that has paralyzed Washington, D.C."
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