- Associated Press - Friday, June 2, 2017

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - House leaders were talking confidently Friday about reaching a budget deal to keep Louisiana’s lawmakers out of an immediate special session next week.

Gov. John Bel Edwards set parameters for a session that would begin 30 minutes after the regular session ends Thursday evening. But the Democratic governor said it was only precautionary, in case budget negotiations fall apart on the construction and operating budgets.

Republican House Speaker Taylor Barras said he believes a special session will be unnecessary and told Edwards as much.

“I expressed the same to him that I was confident we wouldn’t need it,” Barras said.

The Republican who leads the House budget committee, Appropriations Chairman Cameron Henry, said he expects the House and Senate will reach an agreement on the operating budget bill Henry handles.

“I’m not overly concerned that we won’t have enough time between now and Thursday to finish the people’s work,” Henry said.

The Senate is scheduled Saturday to debate and pass its version of the operating budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1, setting up the dividing lines between the two chambers over how to finance state government agencies.

The House wanted to leave $206 million unspent, because GOP leaders there believe that state income estimates may be too rosy and they wanted a cushion so they didn’t have to make midyear cuts if the projections come up short.

Edwards and state agency leaders said without that money, prisoners would be released early, health programs would shutter and critical services would be damaged. Senators added the $206 million - and other dollars they identified - back into the spending plans.

Barras said he doesn’t believe a budget that uses every dollar of financing available could win enough support for passage in the House.

“That would be a struggle, to use all of it,” he said. “It’ll be a tough place to start.”

A final version of next year’s operating budget likely will be hammered out behind the scenes by a conference committee, with Senate and House leaders trying to settle on a figure of how much they’ll spend.

Disagreement between the House and Senate about next year’s spending isn’t the only outstanding dispute to be settled, to avoid a special session. The House also is in a partisan disagreement that has bottled up a separate, must-pass financing bill to keep dollars flowing to state-funded construction projects.

House Democrats, who are a minority in the chamber, stalled the construction bill as leverage to try to get more spending in the operating budget, more projects in the construction budget and more seats on the committees that craft the two bills.

Republicans and Democrats have been meeting privately to broker a compromise.

The Democrats’ leader in the House, Minden Rep. Gene Reynolds, said after a Friday meeting that he thinks lawmakers are making progress in negotiations, though no agreements had been reached.

“Nobody wants to go into special session,” Reynolds said. “We’re working in the right direction.”

If they can avoid a special session next week, they’ll still face one in the coming months. Edwards is expected to call a special session on taxes sometime before temporary taxes expire on June 30, 2018, and blow a $1 billion-plus gap in the budget.


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

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