- Associated Press - Friday, February 5, 2016

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - Gov. John Bel Edwards officially called Friday for lawmakers to convene Feb. 14 in a special legislative session aimed at stabilizing Louisiana’s finances and closing an immediate budget gap estimated to top $700 million.

The Democratic governor’s proclamation sets the dates and parameters for the session, which can run until March 9. The broad outline for the session has been talked about for weeks, but the proclamation set the list of 36 areas that can be considered by lawmakers.

Edwards placed tighter limits than Republican lawmakers sought as they pushed back against the governor’s seeking to fill most of the budget holes with tax hikes.

With this year’s shortfall and estimates of a nearly $2 billion gap for next year, Edwards said the session’s goal is to end cycles of continuing budget shortfalls. He’s proposing tax increases to raise new money for the treasury, saying that’s the only way to avoid devastating cuts to public colleges and health services.

“This is a season of hard choices for Louisiana,” Edwards said in a statement. He added: “This is not the plan I want to submit to the legislature, but unfortunately, these are the options we have to choose from in the short term.”

Fewer than five months remain before the fiscal year ends June 30 and the budget must be rebalanced.

Republican lawmakers say there’s room for reductions in government spending, but Edwards only included some of their ideas in the special session agenda - though he did include a wide-ranging item that allows for cuts across state agencies.

“I have listened to legislators and have drafted a broad call allowing flexibility to consider both cuts and raising money for the state,” Edwards said. “Now is the time for legislators to join with me to resolve these problems.”

The agenda includes Edwards’ proposal to tap into $128 million from Louisiana’s “rainy day” fund and to redirect $200 million in Gulf oil spill recovery money earmarked for a lawsuit settlement to instead plug holes in this year’s budget.

The governor also will allow lawmakers to consider reworking state contracts and decreasing protections that shield some budget areas from deep cuts.

But most of the items included for debate involve taxes.

House Speaker Taylor Barras, R-New Iberia, pledged in a statement to work with the administration on “responsible solutions.” But he noted some items Republicans sought were missing from the session agenda.

“While some non-tax items are included, many were anticipating more opportunity to address structural and spending reforms,” Barras said.

In a letter earlier this week, the Republican Legislative Delegation urged Edwards to allow lawmakers to consider restructuring Medicaid, state pension systems, state worker health care and criminal sentencing laws, along with government reorganizations.

Rep. Lance Harris, R-Alexandria, chairman of the House GOP delegation, said Republican lawmakers “are a bit disappointed” that most of those ideas seemed to fall outside the parameters Edwards provided.

“We’ll be looking at our options of how we can affect some savings in government and do what we believe needs to be done first, which is look at costs before we look at the revenue side of it,” Harris said.

Lawmakers can consider increasing a wide array of taxes on people and businesses, everything from sales and income tax hikes to boosted taxes on phone service, car rentals, business utilities, room rentals, cigarettes, alcohol, dry cleaning and sports tickets. Certain types of tax breaks can be reworked or eliminated.

The session begins at 4 p.m. on Valentine’s Day. It must end by 6 p.m. March 9.

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

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