- Associated Press - Tuesday, December 13, 2016

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - Louisiana won’t put a dollar figure on how deep its budget shortfall is until January.

Though economists and lawmakers know the state’s tax collections are coming in lower than expected, Louisiana’s income-forecasting panel refused Tuesday to officially shrink its forecast. A downgrade would have required the governor and lawmakers to make deep cuts and budget rebalancing decisions within a month.

Gov. John Bel Edwards’ chief budget adviser Jay Dardenne called Tuesday’s postponement by the Revenue Estimating Conference irresponsible. He said it ignores the inevitable need for millions of dollars in cuts and gives agencies less time in the budget year to cope with them.

“There’s no question we’re going to have to make cuts. The longer we wait, the worse it’s going to get,” said Dardenne, the Democratic governor’s commissioner of administration. He added: “What we’re doing today is just turning a blind eye to reality.”

House Speaker Taylor Barras pushed for delay, saying it gives the state more time to collect tax data and lawmakers more time to comb through cut scenarios. He worried about triggering a 30-day clock to make cuts, a deadline that, if missed, forces a special session.

“I’m looking for the most accurate number we can have before we start the clock ticking,” said Barras, R-New Iberia.

But economists gave the Revenue Estimating Conference little reason to believe Louisiana’s financial picture will improve amid a continuing downslide in Louisiana’s economy and unemployment that is hammering personal income and business tax collections.

“We’ve got a weakness in the underlying economy,” said the Legislature’s chief economist, Greg Albrecht.

Any new shortfalls for the current budget year that began July 1 will come on top of a $313 million deficit from last year that hasn’t been closed. The Edwards administration plan to eliminate last year’s deficit goes before lawmakers for a decision Thursday.

To change a state income forecast, the four-member Revenue Estimating Conference must agree unanimously. The membership split down the middle Tuesday, with Dardenne and Senate President John Alario seeking immediate revisions and Barras and LSU economist Jim Richardson wanting to wait a month.

With a unanimous decision impossible, the panel didn’t vote.

Richardson pointed to “substantial” differences between the two economists who advise the panel. Albrecht’s forecast would have created a $289 million midyear hole, while Edwards administration economist Manfred Dix’s forecast would have opened up a $464 million gap.

“One more month will provide more information,” Richardson said.

Dardenne asked the economists: “Do either of you anticipate that things are going to get a lot rosier between now and January?”

“It’s just one more month of data,” Albrecht replied.

House lawmakers are worried they’ll get jammed by the administration on cut decisions and want more time to negotiate. Barras said the Edwards administration could draw up slashing scenarios for lawmakers to review without having a specific dollar figure from the Revenue Estimating Conference.

Alario, R-Westwego, was concerned if House members were “uncomfortable,” it could be difficult to get their votes to tap into the state’s “rainy day” fund for $119 million to offset part of whatever shortfall emerges.

Even if House leaders and the Edwards administration can agree on a plan, that doesn’t rule out the possibility of a special session. If the governor and the joint budget committee max out on cuts they’re allowed to make under the constitution and a gap remains, a special session would be required to finish rebalancing the budget.

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

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