Louisiana Senate $30B budget debate diverts to abortion ban
The spending plan for the financial year that begins July 1 includes new money for colleges, public school teacher pay raises, early learning programs, foster care, health services and senior centers.
Thursday's 35-2 vote drew the final negotiating lines between the House and Senate ahead of the legislative session's end next week.
But a budget debate that had been expected to be low on controversy began amid news that Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards signed a bill that could prohibit abortion as early as six weeks of pregnancy, when a fetal heartbeat is detected, if a similar Mississippi law is upheld. The law has no exceptions in cases of rape or incest.
Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, a New Orleans Democrat who opposed the abortion restrictions, argued the budget doesn't do enough to assist women with an "involuntary birth." She sought to steer millions to prenatal care for women, foster care and sex education, only to see each proposal rejected by both Republicans and Democrats.
"If you're going to force a 12-year-old child who has been raped to have a child, raise it for her," Peterson shouted. At another point, she told senators if they've "decided to control the uterus of a woman," they should support the children born because of that decision.
The abortion ban put Peterson, chair of the Louisiana Democratic Party, sharply at odds with the governor her party is supporting for re-election. She never mentioned Edwards by name during the budget debate, though she talked of the administration needing to "do a better job matching the dictate regarding women's bodies with (spending) priorities."
She was one of two votes against the budget proposal.
After years of fighting over cuts and budget gaps, this year's debate centers on how to spend new dollars available to lawmakers, built on financing from a seven-year tax deal struck last year.
"I think we have a budget that we can be proud of when you consider the number of dollars that we have to spend," said Senate Finance Chairman Eric LaFleur, the Ville Platte Democrat who shepherds the bill through the Senate.
The biggest dispute centers on K-12 education, specifically whether to include a $39 million discretionary increase for school districts on top of teacher raises. The House version of the budget didn't include the money; the Senate's does.
The budget contains increases for the child welfare agency and the corrections department. Louisiana's foster care program would be expanded to cover youth up to age 21. State workers would get pay raises. The TOPS program would cover full college tuition for all eligible students. Early learning programs would receive new dollars to cover children from birth to 3 years old. The Medicaid rates paid to providers of home- and community-based services for the elderly and people with developmental disabilities would increase.
LaFleur, who is term-limited, urged lawmakers against talking about future cuts to state spending, noting the state "suffers from so much poverty."
"We will always be on the bottom of the list if we don't choose to fund those types of programs that will interrupt that cycle and change things," he said. "It's going to require more than what we're doing today."
Combined with other budget bills, total spending across state, legislative and judicial agencies next year would top $34 billion.