BATON ROUGE — Gov. John Bel Edwards opened the Regular Legislative Session mindful of frayed feelings from a do-nothing Special Session that ended a week ago.
"I do not want the roadblocks of the special session to hamper us from what’s most important – making life better for the people of this great state," Edwards said as he addressed representatives and senators in the House chamber.
But the feeling of the failure in the Special Session still lingered.
"It's a weird mood," said Rep. Tanner Magee, R-Houma. "It's somber; like a hangover."
Even before Edwards lined out his priorities for the Regular Session, he looked ahead toward yet another Special Session where he will ask lawmakers yet again to pass new taxes to replace a portion of the $1.4 billion in expiring taxes.
Edwards, the only Democratic governor in the Deep South, said the state faces a nearly $700 shortfall in next year's budget that will require deep cuts to the popular scholarship program TOPS and health care programs affecting the poor without action.
"While I am extremely disappointed in the way things ended last week, as I know many of you are, I want to thank the many members of this body – the vast majority of you, in fact – who understood how important it was to work together toward a solution," he said. "Very soon we will have another opportunity – our last opportunity – to fix the fiscal cliff as we should have done in this past Special Session."
But that will have to wait until May 14. That's when Edwards, House Speaker Taylor Barras, R-New Iberia, and Senate President John Alario, R-Westwego, plan to begin another Special Session after cutting the Regular Session short.
"I'm not giving up complete hope," said Rep. Gene Reynolds, D-Minden, former chair of the House Democratic Caucus. "We can't drop ball with higher education and TOPS and health care in the balance."
Until then, Edwards has asked lawmakers to revisit his priorities the Legislature rejected during his first two years in office — a state minimum wage exceeding federal law and legislation to require equal pay for women.
"We must find ways to lift families out of poverty," Edwards said. "A critical part of this effort is establishing a minimum wage that produces a modest but meaningful pay increase and passing the Louisiana Equal Pay Act.
"Louisiana has the highest wage inequity in the entire country. Everyone in this room should be offended that a woman makes only 66 cents for every dollar a man makes."
But in the end, passing a budget during the regular session with $700 million in cuts will take center stage. The House Appropriations Committee can't craft a budget assuming the Legislature will pass any new taxes during a Special Session.
"There is no denying that we have some very difficult work ahead of us," Edwards said.
"That is why we should have fixed the fiscal cliff when I gave you the opportunity a couple weeks ago," he said. "However, many of you have suggested that the fiscal cliff could be solved by simply making spending cuts. I think what many of you will find is that it is much harder than it seems."