BATON ROUGE, La. — Trying to prove he doesn’t always turn to taxes to fill budget holes, Gov. John Bel Edwards is circulating a list of more than $600 million in budget cuts he says his administration has made during its two years in office, a list that Republicans describe as inflated.
The counting of cuts is a flashpoint in the broader debate over how many taxes lawmakers will agree to support to replace $1 billion in temporary taxes expiring July 1.
Edwards wants the full amount replaced. Republican lawmakers have questioned whether a dollar-for-dollar swap is needed or something less. They criticize the Democratic governor as making few structural changes to permanently shrink state spending.
Edwards’ budget cut list, released this week, hasn’t squelched the criticism.
Alexandria Rep. Lance Harris, chairman of the House GOP delegation, said Thursday that items included appear to be “a play on words and a different definition of what is a cut.”
“I question the method he used to define those cuts,” said Rep. Mark Abraham, a Lake Charles Republican.
More than half the items on Edwards’ $672 million list are one-time cuts that don’t yield permanent, long-term savings. The tally includes an $88 million reduction to Louisiana’s TOPS college tuition program made last year that was reversed this year, along with temporary reductions in the health department.
Other cuts are counted twice, for each budget year Edwards has been in office.
“We feel like it is not an accurate representation of real, annualized cuts or reductions in spending,” said Rep. Jack McFarland, a Winnfield Republican. “The TOPS reduction, how is that a cut? TOPS is still as much today as it was the first day he took office. It’s disingenuous.”
About $300 million on the list is tied to twice delaying payments to health providers that care for Medicaid patients, according to the health department. The $150 million obligation remains owed and has to be paid in the future.
“How is pushing a Medicaid payment a cut?” Harris said.
The Edwards administration defends the list.
“These cuts are real,” said Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne, the governor’s chief financial adviser.
Edwards offered the list at a Jan. 22 budget hearing, after telling lawmakers he has cut more than $600 million in state general fund spending — the pool of general tax dollars over which lawmakers and the governor have the most leeway.
“We have made some incredibly hard cuts,” he said.
At the hearing, Sen. Sharon Hewitt pointed to data showing the general fund has consistently grown during Edwards’ tenure, along with other state financing sources.
General fund spending, according to the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Office, was $8.8 billion in the 2015-16 budget year when Edwards took office, compared to $9.4 billion budgeted this year.
Dardenne said spending continues to grow even amid cuts to services because certain programs are mandated to increase, such as the K-12 financing formula, salary supplements to local law enforcement and debt payments.
“You’ve got to look at the increases in state services that are required by laws that you all have passed and you haven’t repealed them,” Edwards told legislators. “So, it’s not as easy as adding and subtracting one year’s numbers to the next.”
House Republicans who have blocked taxes haven’t offered detailed cut proposals.
“If you don’t want to spend, then you have to decide what you don’t want to fund,” Dardenne said. “That is squarely in the legislators’ purview.”
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