- Associated Press - Thursday, April 14, 2016

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - Louisiana’s annual budget debate, always tinged with uncertainty about how much money agencies will receive, is mired in more ambiguity this year, complicated by questions about whether lawmakers will consider raising more taxes and when they’d make those decisions.

The state’s new financial year begins in July and it’s unclear when a special session on taxes might be held. Without new revenue, Gov. John Bel Edwards and lawmakers could be forced to make deep cuts to close a $750 million shortfall.

The situation is causing unease - and often frustration - among people who rely on the state for services, higher education leaders who don’t know what to tell their students and safety net hospital operators trying to determine if they may want to exit their hospital management contracts.

WHY A SPECIAL SESSION?

Lawmakers can raise fees and fines in their ongoing regular session that ends June 6, but they can’t raise taxes.

Gov. John Bel Edwards’ administration says any fee hikes under consideration won’t be enough to close the hefty budget gap, and the Democratic governor said a special session will be needed to keep health services, colleges, public schools and the TOPS free college tuition program from significant cuts.

“There was one guy who could do the loaves and fishes trick, but it isn’t me,” the governor told the House budget committee.

WHY THE SCHEDULING QUESTION?

Edwards told lawmakers he’d like to get the special session going as quickly as possible after the current session ends, but he also said he doesn’t want to bring lawmakers back to work until “we know we can be successful.”

Republican lawmakers, particularly in the House, are resistant to the idea of further tax hikes after a special legislative session earlier this year that saw the Legislature agree to $1.2 billion in tax increases for next year’s budget.

Appropriations Chairman Cameron Henry, R-Metairie, has suggested waiting until September or October, when a budget reform study group is scheduled to finish its recommendations.

Other GOP lawmakers have said they want to stall special session plans until they can see how much money is rolling into the state treasury from the previous tax hikes, to get a better sense of how much money they need to fill gaps.

Edwards said he’s unwilling to wait that long: “The longer we wait, the more disruption we cause.”

IN THE MEANTIME

Unsure of what additional money they might raise or when, lawmakers are sifting through budget-cutting scenarios from Edwards.

Those proposals could strip all state financing from the privatized LSU hospitals and clinics in Alexandria, Bogalusa, Houma and Lake Charles; provide only about one-third of the money needed to fully fund TOPS; and shutter state parks, museums and services.

Henry said lawmakers could find ways to rework the budget cuts that might be more tolerable.

“Our priorities might be a little different,” he said. “There are other options out there.”

HIGHER EDUCATION FRUSTRATION

In their budget hearing, Louisiana’s college leaders didn’t bother to hide growing frustration with the budget question marks. They don’t know what positions they can afford to fill or what classes they can afford in the 2016-17 school year.

Worsening the situation, higher education officials told the Appropriations Committee this week, they don’t know how many students will receive TOPS tuition awards, and the size and number of those awards could sway students on whether they will go to college and what campus they’ll choose.

“We need some answers now,” said Dan Reneau, interim president of the University of Louisiana System. “Students are definitely making up their minds now.”

LSU System President F. King Alexander said if lawmakers can’t give college campus officials more certainty about state financing, they should at least give the schools control of their own tuition and fees.

“Just let us go,” Alexander said. “Let us adjust to our own market.”

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Follow Melinda Deslatte on Twitter at https://twitter.com/melindadeslatte


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