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GOP lawamkers, not Edwards, can call fiscal tune

To Democrat Gov. John Bel Edwards’ invitation to share in blame for his tax-and-spend agenda, Louisiana’s legislative Republicans should demur.

Edwards recently announced that he might forgo a special session of the Legislature under certain conditions. An additional meeting outside of the 2018 regular session prior to the end of the fiscal year is widely anticipated to address the disappearance of temporary taxes by then, at current spending levels leaving a gap of about $1.2 billion.

Realizing the resistance of majority of the Republican House caucus members to tax increases generally, Edwards proclaimed that he would not call such a session unless GOP leadership rallied behind some kind of raise, calling to do so in those circumstances a waste of time and money. For their part, leaders such as Republican House Speaker Taylor Barras has conceded the necessity of some kind of tax renewal/increase.

But Republicans don’t have to fall for Edwards’ attempt to make them seem as culpable as he in growing government. Asking for people to continue to pay more of what they earn to inflate spending Edwards knows will sink his reelection bid unless he can get the GOP to appear as a partner in the exercise. Thus, during the 2017 legislative sessions he kept harping on how the Legislature “must” come up with revenue-raising or submit detailed instructions on where to cut.

In response to Edwards’ latest statement, chairman of the Republican delegation state Rep. Lance Harris tangentially reminded the governor of his constitutional duties. Likening Edwards to the head of large corporate entity, he said the governor had to take the lead and persuade legislators, whose part-time status makes them less capable of taking the lead on this task.

The full-time/part-time status doesn’t mean so much here as how the Constitution delineates authority on budgeting matters. Simply, the Legislature tells the executives (mainly the governor) the amount of money they can spend, and provides whatever additional details it wishes in the specificity of the appropriations. 

If tax policy decisions by the Legislature do not fund to the level Edwards wants, or even in a way to eliminate the forecast gap, he will wish to tie identified cuts to the GOP-run branch of government. Republicans don’t have to comply; they simply can construct a budget forcing Edwards to designate and make the cuts.

For example, the GOP leadership could pass a budget reliant on renewing temporarily half of the sales tax, the kind of tax Edwards most resists as he wants to hike income taxes on higher, more productive earners to redistribute the proceeds to others. This tax would have to come in a special session, with Republican leaders telling Edwards he must accept it or he can have the responsibility of making cuts to compensate for the entire gap. That would take care of about a third of the difference.

In that budget, they also could decline spending about another third by instructing Edwards to rebalance long-term health care from institutions to homes and the community, to institute cost-sharing in Medicaid, and to sign a related bill that passes to lower the eligibility standard for free use of charity hospitals by individuals from the 200 to 138 percent federal poverty level as they already qualify for nearly free health insurance from the federal government (if that separate bill doesn’t pass, that $65 million can end up as part of reduction of the shortfall’s final third).

Finally, a third of the gap the Legislature would instruct the governor to cut overall from expenditures that he controls. From his first day in office, Edwards has tried to trap the Legislature into thinking cuts can come only when specifically designated. The GOP majority has not bought that, with its leaders rightly reminding Edwards that he has the constitutional duty to make cuts as instructed, regardless if these contain few details. They must continue to reject this notion, which mistakenly assumes that able bureaucrats cannot find efficiencies in carrying out their functions, in this case to the tune of just two cents of every general fund dollar.

Edwards will attempt to avoid this scenario – the tax increase he least likes, not enough of it that forces him into endorsing health care savings he opposes, and contracting government through cuts that he alone imposes and reaps the political consequences that ensues – like the plague. But if Republicans hold firm, they can force him into this. No need to let him call the tune; they have all the opportunity to make him dance to theirs.

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