Senators Reverse Most Of La. House Budget Cuts
BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Louisiana senators Monday rewrote the state's $25 billion operating budget for next year, rejecting deep cuts pushed by House Republicans that the Jindal administration said would devastate health care services and public colleges.
The Senate Finance Committee added more than $350 million to the 2012-13 spending plans, restoring all the one-time money removed by a bloc of conservative GOP lawmakers in the House who want to shrink state government spending — and pouring in additional piecemeal financing.
The changes stop cuts that Gov. Bobby Jindal's budget advisers, higher education officials and health care leaders said would damage critical services, shutter health care programs and push college campuses to the brink of financial emergency.
"The testimony we received was very compelling," said Finance Committee Chairman Jack Donahue, R-Mandeville.
Senators' actions, made in dozens of pages of changes to a package of budget bills, sets up the battle lines for the remaining week of the regular legislative session. Lawmakers have until June 4 to craft a final version of the spending plans for the fiscal year that begins July 1.
A Thursday floor debate was expected in the Senate on the spending proposals, which include the proposed use of nearly $205 million from Louisiana's "rainy day" fund to offset a deficit in the current year that ends June 30. That was a budget gap that so far had been ignored in House actions.
As it heads to the full Senate, the largest cut, about $71 million, would fall on public colleges. Tuition increases would offset nearly a third of that, but college leaders said they would shrink course offerings and eliminate programs to close the remaining gap, after years of budget slashing.
Commissioner of Higher Education Jim Purcell said while the remaining cuts would be difficult, the Senate committee's use of the one-time financing staves off the widespread layoffs and closures that would have been levied on college campuses in the House version.
"This is definitely much more workable," Purcell told senators. "What you have here is something that's certainly painful, but something that we can muddle through."
Across government, state agencies could be forced to make up to 2,700 layoffs.
Private companies would be hired to run a state employee health care plan in the Office of Group Benefits, two facilities that care for developmentally disabled people in Hammond and Bossier City and the operations of ferries in Gretna, Algiers and Chalmette.
Ferries at Edgard and White Castle would be shuttered, along with a state prison, the Forcht-Wade Correctional Center in Keithville.
Health care providers who take care of Medicaid patients would get paid nearly 4 percent less, on average, for those services. Private hospitals would be exempt from the rate reduction.
Senators reversed more sweeping health cuts that Health and Hospitals Secretary Bruce Greenstein said would have shut down a state-run psychiatric hospital in central Louisiana; eliminated an early intervention program for children who have hearing, speech and motor control problems; stripped state funding for school-based health centers; and closed a Medicaid program that treats breast and cervical cancer patients.
"I do feel a lot better than where we were," said Sen. Ronnie Johns, R-Lake Charles.
Conservative House lawmakers accused the Republican Jindal administration of using scare tactics to pressure senators to add dollars into next year's budget. The House GOP coalition, which didn't include Republican House Speaker Chuck Kleckley, claimed the budget could be cut by eliminating wasteful spending, cutting contracts, shrinking overtime pay and removing vacant jobs.
"I personally think that would be very difficult to do," Donahue said of making the types of cuts sought by the House Republicans without damaging critical services.
The Finance Committee also refused a House proposal that would have shut down the Office of the Inspector General, which investigates allegations of fraud and misspending in executive branch agencies. Senators restored $1.8 million to keep the office running next year, a move pushed by several government watchdog organizations.
Without discussion, the panel cut half a million dollars and four positions from the office of Treasurer John Kennedy, who has sided with the bloc of conservative Republicans in the House during this year's budget debate.
Donahue said senators also closed a $13 million budget imbalance left by the House in the spending plans and stripped any budget assumptions that savings would be generated in next year's budget by pension changes sought by Jindal.
The dispute with the bloc of conservative House Republicans centers on the use of one-time financing for ongoing programs. The coalition says such budgeting is financially irresponsible because it doesn't match state spending to the dollars that will be available year after year.
As crafted by senators, next year's budget proposal contains about $270 million in one-time cash paying for ongoing services, Donahue said.
Meanwhile, the Senate Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Committee on Monday passed a capital construction budget that includes $100 million more in projects than there is money to spend in the upcoming fiscal year. That would leave the governor's office to decide which projects get funding.
House Bill 1 can be found at www.legis.la.gov