- Associated Press - Thursday, February 11, 2016

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - In a rare, statewide televised speech, Gov. John Bel Edwards tried Thursday to persuade Louisianians that he and lawmakers need to raise their taxes to help pay for continuing government services.

The Democratic governor, in office since January, described widespread, devastating closures of public college campuses and shuttering of health care services without the new money.

“I want you to understand that, if left unresolved - if the Legislature does not choose a way to raise additional dollars to strengthen the budget, and very soon - we will face unimaginable cuts to vital state services,” he said.

The governor said that, without tax hikes, safety net hospitals will close around Louisiana, the Pennington Biomedical Research Center will shut down in April and LSU’s flagship campus in Baton Rouge will run out of money by April 30. He said colleges will have to take reductions that would keep students from finishing classes and make student athletes ineligible to play.

Edwards acknowledged that he didn’t run on a platform of raising taxes, but he said the budget gaps he inherited from former Gov. Bobby Jindal are so deep that Louisiana needs new dollars to pay for services.

He’s asking lawmakers, who convene in a special session Sunday, to agree to boost taxes on most people and businesses. Republicans have shown resistance to the idea, and Edwards is hoping to get public support on his side to put pressure on GOP lawmakers.

The governor laid the foundation for his request for tax hikes with the 12-minute speech, which aired on TV and radio stations across Louisiana. He urged people to “focus on solutions and not allow party labels and bickering to pull us apart.”

Louisiana has at least an $850 million budget gap in the current year’s $25 billion budget that must be rebalanced before the fiscal year ends June 30. Edwards said the shortfall is even higher, pegging it at $940 million. Next year’s budget hole is estimated to top $2 billion.

“We will not be paralyzed in fear by the size of this challenge, nor would we falsely claim ‘the sky is falling.’ But this is a historic fiscal crisis, the likes of which our state has never seen,” the governor said.

He insisted his predictions of college closures and health care service shutdowns weren’t scare tactics.

When questioned about the scenarios after his speech, Edwards replied: “I can’t make the math be anything other than what it is. I can’t do tricks. I’m not a magician.”

Though Edwards blamed Jindal, he never named him, simply calling him “my predecessor.” He outlined how Jindal used short-term fixes to patch his way through the budget over eight years, rather than cut spending to match the state’s annual income or raise taxes, calling it “irresponsible budgeting.”

And Edwards struck back at Republican claims that solely cuts could balance the budget.

“Remember, for eight years we’ve had a conservative governor with a conservative Legislature. If stabilizing the budget were as easy as cutting spending and simply reducing state contracts, that would have been done already. But it hasn’t,” Edwards said.

In what the state Republican Party described as its “response” to the governor’s speech, GOP Treasurer John Kennedy insisted cuts could address the gap. He said Louisiana has too many consulting contracts, too many protected funds, too many middle managers and too much fraud and misspending in its Medicaid program.

He said Edwards is proposing “the largest tax increase in the history of Louisiana.”

“It will wreck our economy, already fragile,” Kennedy said.

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