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Wednesday, April 17, 2019

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Edwards readying budget ideas for February special session

Edwards readying budget ideas for February special session

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Only days away from taking office, Gov.-elect John Bel Edwards said Monday that he will soon release a "menu of options" for digging Louisiana out of its continuing budget troubles, ideas that he hopes will help lawmakers reach a consensus ahead of a February special legislative session.

Edwards said those proposals will include spending cuts, government efficiencies, the draw-down of more federal money, expanded flexibility to cut protected budget areas and the reduction of state tax breaks.

"You're going to see over the next week to 10 days a number of proposals coming out which really will be a menu of options from which we can choose to bridge the gap," Edwards said in an interview with The Associated Press, one of several pre-inauguration sit-downs with news media outlets.

The governor-elect, who takes office Jan. 11, said he doesn't expect to gain support for each idea, but sees the suggestions as a way to determine which proposals gain traction from lawmakers and the public.

"The one thing that I'm asking people to do is, if we propose something as a potential solution that they embrace, then they should let us know that. If they have heartburn, they should let us know that and then offer a better way to do it," Edwards said. "What we have to try to do is find common ground."

Edwards plans a three-week special legislative session, to begin the week after Mardi Gras, to work on stabilizing Louisiana's finances. His incoming administration estimates the state faces a $750 million shortfall in the remaining six months of the $25 billion budget that ends June 30, and a gap more than twice that size next year.

Lawmakers and Gov. Bobby Jindal's administration didn't include enough money in this year's budget to cover the projected costs of the Medicaid program that cares for the poor and disabled, the TOPS free college tuition program and prisoner costs.

On top of that, the state is expected to bring in less tax income than projected when the budget was built, partially tied to the continuing decline of oil prices.

The governor-elect said the financial woes are worse than he thought, saying the Jindal administration "for a while now has sugarcoated all of this."

Edwards' first budget proposal is due for lawmakers' review only days before the special session begins. He said he expects it will be a "very challenging and sobering document" because it will require deep cuts to match next year's spending to projected state income.

But with the budget proposal, Edwards said he'll also offer suggestions for drumming up new dollars for the state treasury "so we don't have to adopt that particular budget."

A final version of next year's budget won't need to be hashed out until the three-month regular legislative session that begins in March. Edwards hopes lawmakers will agree in the three-week special session to raise new money that not only will plug this year's financial gap, but also will be available for spending in next year's budget, to lessen cuts.

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