- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 14, 2017

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - Gov. John Bel Edwards and House Republican leaders were at loggerheads after negotiation sessions Tuesday aimed at striking a compromise to close Louisiana’s $304 million deficit failed to reach a deal.

“I would say negotiations aren’t exactly moving smoothly,” said House Appropriations Chairman Cameron Henry, R-Metairie.

Henry’s comments came after the Democratic governor met twice with a dozen top House and Senate leaders in closed-door talks. Another meeting was planned for Wednesday, as the special session called by Edwards to eliminate the budget gap reaches its third day.

With House leaders constitutionally in control of the budget bills, Senate leaders started to worry about time slipping away in the 10-day session.

“The clock is running on us,” said Senate President John Alario, R-Westwego.

The central point of contention in rebalancing the $27 billion operating budget for the financial year that ends June 30 is whether to use Louisiana’s “rainy day” fund to help close the gap - and if so, how much to take from it.

Edwards wants to use the full one-third available, nearly $120 million. Senate leaders support that approach. But House Republican leaders are reticent to tap the savings account, saying the state needs to permanently shrink its spending to better match its income.

“I’m not looking at this two weeks to fix a short-term problem. I’m looking at this to fix the long-term problem of spending more than we make,” Henry said.

Use of the rainy day fund requires a two-thirds vote of the House and Senate.

Besides the rainy day fund, Edwards calls for cutting $60 million from agencies and tapping into $120 million in other available financing to fill holes. Colleges, prisons, K-12 public schools, the TOPS college tuition program and the state child welfare agency would be shielded. The largest cuts would fall in the state health department.

House Republican leaders presented Tuesday what Henry described as a “starting point” for negotiations, suggesting they’d support $53 million in rainy day fund money. That would have cut colleges and agencies Edwards sought to protect. The governor rejected the proposal.

House Speaker Taylor Barras, R-New Iberia, is circulating another idea that would cut into protected funds, forcing reductions across nearly all agencies in a broad-based fashion that has raised concerns because it could hit TOPS and K-12 public schools.

Other House members are working on scenarios, and Henry said he’ll have a modified proposal Wednesday.

“The governor still has not seen a viable alternative,” Edwards spokesman Richard Carbo said in a statement.

With only about four months left in the budget year, refusal to use the rainy day fund would cause deep, unnecessary cuts to programs and services, Edwards told lawmakers in his session-opening speech. That was the message Carbo repeated Tuesday, saying the savings account “is available for our use to avoid inflicting more pain on the people of Louisiana.”

While haggling continued behind the scenes, the Senate advanced legislation authorizing rainy day fund use. The Finance Committee sent the measure to the full Senate for consideration “without action,” a procedural move that keeps it on track in the short session.

Alario said he won’t seek a full Senate vote on using the reserves until “we give the House an opportunity to offer some legitimate cuts.”

Tuesday was the second Valentine’s Day in a row that lawmakers have spent in a special session called by Edwards to deal with financial problems.

“I wish we could have spent it doing a lot more enjoyable things,” Barras said.


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

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