Gov. Edwards: House GOP wishlist marks progress, though more budget specifics needed

BATON ROUGE, La. (LOCAL 33) (FOX 44) - Budget reform proposals presented by Louisiana House Speaker Taylor Barras show progress, but are not enough to fix the state's projected $1 billion fiscal cliff, Gov. John Bel Edwards said in an interview Wednesday.

Barras' ideas, outlined in a letter to Edwards late Tuesday, include improvements to a budget transparency website, revised calculations of spending caps, as well as work requirements and co-pays for Medicaid patients.

"None of them actually address the cliff," Edwards told "None of them do anything to figure out how we're going to find the $994 million in revenue that we need."

But the Edwards administration did not discount Barras' suggestions outright, particularly those regarding Medicaid requirements and costs. House Republican leaders want to impose co-pays for recipients using emergency rooms and receiving select prescriptions. The governor has recommended similar measures in the past.

The governor and the House also agree on imposing a Medicaid work requirement. In his letter, Barras suggested that patients work or volunteer at least 20 hours a week. (The requirement would not apply to those younger than 19, older than 64, or to pregnant women, rehab patients, or anyone deemed physically or mentally unfit for work.)

House leaders also want state health officials to lower -- or eliminate -- the income threshold for those who qualify. Current guidelines allow those with incomes 25 percent over the threshold to receive the service.

"Some of those, I can tell you, are not going to be problematic," Edwards said. "Some, we don't know enough details to understand how they would impact the state going forward, so it's too early to say whether or not we'd support them."

The governor and his aides say they are studying Barras' other proposals, which include creating a website listing state expenditures and public employee salaries. Legislators are also recommending a spending cap, limiting the budget based on population, state revenue projections and income data.

"It is critical that we start stretching hard-earned tax dollars further," said Barras. "To steer our great state away from the cliff, we must all sit down together in good faith and be fiscally responsible, not partisan."

The speaker claimed that most House Republican leaders would want such ideas addressed in a special legislative session in February, as legislators are barred from debating revenue measures between March and June.

"I appreciate the fact that the speaker says he wants to do this in February," Edwards said. "There aren't any options available to us in June that aren't available now."

If lawmakers do not renew the sales tax revenue that expires July 1, state mental health, hospitals and higher education programs risk steep cuts. Presenting what he calls a "worst-case-scenario" budget last week, Edwards suggested an 80 percent reduction to the TOPS college scholarship program, without action from legislators.

"Time is running out," he said. "The problem doesn't get better. It actually gets worse the longer we wait."

The governor hopes to call a special session by next Thursday, so legislators can convene Feb. 15. Whether he ultimately announces one hinges on additional proposals he hopes to receive from Barras by Friday.

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