Edwards talks expected cuts following second special session

BATON ROUGE — Gov. John Bel Edwards on Wednesday outlined cuts to higher education, criminal justice and assistance to needy families in a budget passed by the Legislature and made a pitch for renewing a half-penny of sales taxes to avert most of them.

He made the comments in his first public appearance since he sharply criticized House leaders at a news conference minutes after the dramatic conclusion of a special session Monday night.

Lawmakers passed a budget that would have funded the programs if there were enough revenue, but efforts to pass a revenue bill collapsed in the House.

Edwards struck a more optimistic tone Wednesday about raising revenue and funding the programs in an expected third special session.

“I look at these challenges as an opportunity to hit the reset button and achieve the stability that we want in the state of Louisiana, so we can move forward and take care of our critical priorities,” he said.

Under the budget bill, spending on public universities would be cut by $96 million, and funding for TOPS scholarships would be cut by about 30 percent.

“If we start cutting again, we’re going to lose our momentum,” Edwards said, and businesses will not have “the confidence in Louisiana to have the workforce that they need to be successful.”

Edwards said maintaining and eventually increasing higher education funding would create a more qualified workforce and lead to more investment by out-of-state companies. He cited projects in downtown New Orleans and St. James Parish that would bring a combined 3,900 permanent jobs and 8,000 temporary construction jobs.

Edwards touted recent efforts to reform the state’s criminal justice system and reiterated a promise to reduce the state’s highest-in-the-nation incarceration rate. He said that cuts in per-diem payments to sheriff’s departments, which house more than half of the state’s prisoners, would prompt some sheriffs to send the inmates back to overcrowded facilities.

“They’re going to want to bring them back,” Edwards said. “But we’re not funding the Department of Corrections either, so I don’t know what the hell we’re going to do with them.”

At the current rate, Sheriff’s Departments are paid about $24 per inmate per day, providing for only the most basic services. Even if the budget passed Monday is fully funded, the state money for the local housing of adult inmates would decrease by 16 percent.