- Associated Press - Monday, March 14, 2016

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - Gov. John Bel Edwards outlined an expansive agenda to lawmakers Monday as they opened their regular legislative session, saying that while Louisiana’s budget troubles will continue to be his focus, he will also seek to fulfill campaign promises to raise the minimum wage and enact an equal-pay law.

“Stabilizing the budget must remain our top priority, but setting Louisiana on a more prosperous trajectory also requires focusing on policies that will move our state and our people forward,” he told a joint gathering of the House and Senate.

Lawmakers face the same financial problems that have kept Louisiana staggering from one budget crisis to the next. They were unable to fully dig out of the gaps in a contentious special session on taxes that ended last week, so they start the three-month regular session staring down an $800 million shortfall for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

With taxes off the table for the session, lawmakers will be left cobbling together a budget that likely will contain steep cuts across services - and talking about the possibility of a second special session on taxes to lessen some of the slashing. Edwards, in office since January, described the special session’s results as “lacking.”

“As we begin this regular session, let’s get back on track,” he said. “Let’s make the most of the time we have here to improve our state.”

In a news conference later Monday, Edwards said a second special session on the budget is “more likely than not,” though he didn’t offer a timeline or proposal. He said with the current budget gaps, Louisiana won’t be able to adequately fund higher education, health care services and the TOPS free college tuition program.

While the state’s finances again will take center stage this session, lawmakers also have offered a wide range of measures for consideration.

Old education battles on higher education management and the content standards taught in Louisiana’s public schools are expected to flare up again. New contentious discussions about removing Confederate monuments and requiring welfare recipients to hold jobs in order to receive assistance are being introduced.

Lawmakers are proposing bills that will bring national debates on illegal immigration and same-sex marriage to the state Capitol’s halls. New efforts to restrict abortion and strip funding from Planned Parenthood have been proposed among the more than 1,200 bills up for consideration.

Some lawmakers returned to Baton Rouge from districts recovering from severe flooding after days of storms inundated neighborhoods in north and southeast Louisiana, including Edwards’ home parish.

The governor spoke of the devastation as he asked lawmakers to pull together.

“We have enough problems to solve. We don’t need to create more in the process,” Edwards said.

But even as he talked about bipartisanship, the governor described a decidedly Democratic agenda, pushing proposals that likely face a rough road in the majority Republican House and Senate.

He’ll seek a law aimed at closing a wage gap that has women averaging 67 cents in pay for every dollar paid to men and a boost in the state’s minimum wage from the federal level of $7.25 per hour to $8 in 2017 and to $8.50 a year later.

Those ideas received quick opposition from Dawn Starns, state director of the National Federation of Independent Business. In a statement, Starns asked lawmakers “to push back against Gov. Edwards’ overreaching policies that would create additional hardships for Louisiana’s job creators.”

Edwards also wants to reverse course on some decisions made by his predecessor, Republican Bobby Jindal. Edwards is seeking to further restrict which students can receive taxpayer-financed vouchers to private schools and put new limits on charter school creation. He’s proposing a restructuring of the Department of Children and Family Services to undo much of Jindal’s redesign.

But those issues are expected to be overshadowed by financial woes.

“I think it’s going to be just the budget, the budget, the budget,” said Sen. Fred Mills, R-Parks. “I wonder if the budget is just going to take all the oxygen out of the place.”

The regular legislative session must end by June 6.


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

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