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|Session 'overshadowed' by shortfall|
State Sen. Neil Riser said the 2009 session of the state Legislature will be overshadowed by a projected $1.3 billion budget deficit.
Speaking at the opening of the session on Monday, Gov. Bobby Jindal said there will be no "easy fixes" for the budget crunch and Riser agreed.
"I think the essence of his speech is that this session, above and beyond anything else, is about the money," said Riser, R-Columbia. "Just like at other times in the past, this session will be overshadowed by one big issue: the money. Jindal singled out the budget crunch and the necessary budget cuts as "real challenges" that will push lawmakers and state officials in the coming months.
"Indeed, you saw last year we had to make mid-year budget reductions of $341 million dollars," Jindal said. "We have $1.3 billion fewer dollars this year as we put together this year's budget, as we continue to work hard to move our state forward even while we have to do more with less."
Jindal challenged lawmakers to find bipartisan solutions and said any budget will not be Republican or Democrat at the end of the session in May.
"We don't always have to agree, we won't always agree," Jindal said. "'But what is important, what is important is we come together to work at the end, after we have the debates. After we have the full discussion. After we argue. It is important that we come together to do what is best for Louisiana."
Sen. Francis Thompson of Delhi said the Legislature is facing many difficult issues this session, but that "everyone is going to have to work together."
He said he was going to "continue to fight to make sure northeastern Louisiana, all of our communities, are not left out."
State Rep. Andy Anders applauded the governor's call for give and take and said that, without working together, very little would be accomplished in the session.
"The governor's package and what I and the Legislature see is a different package that we're going to have to work on," said Anders. "I just don't see making big cuts in one if we can all work through this thing to make something that we can all survive with."
Anders said he has heard a number of opinions on how best to deal with the budget crisis but many of them rely too heavily on higher education and healthcare.
"We're not here to destroy higher education or to destroy health and welfare," Anders said. "I know I'm not here for that reason."
Riser said he looked forward to tackling the issues, but added that he did not expect discussions of any of the more radical, so-called "nuclear options" that have been discussed of late.
Among the options Riser dismissed was talk of delaying the implementation of the Stelly tax cuts and raiding the governor's economic development megafund to shore up state finances long enough to call for a constitutional convention later this year.
Under the current state constitution, virtually all state budget expenses are constitutionally protected, meaning they cannot be cut.
Riser said the constitution dictates that most of the cuts come from higher education and healthcare, tying the hands of legislators struggling to come up with solutions.
"That's what makes this session so difficult, when you're dealing with such a limited range of what you can deal with," Riser said.
Legislators won't waste time, however, as they are scheduled to take up the budget beginning Wednesday, when numerous committees begin examining Jindal's proposed budget.
Riser said he didn't expect any surprises, but anticipated a number of changes when the budget finally makes it to the governor's desk.
"The budget as you see it now will not be the final budget," Riser said. "I guess that's why they call it a surprise, because you're not expecting it."
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