Budget plans with deeper cuts advance in House

BATON ROUGE — House Republicans started advancing two budget-rebalancing proposals Wednesday that would cut more deeply than Gov. John Bel Edwards wants and hit agencies the Democratic governor wanted to protect.

Approval of the competing plans by the House Appropriations Committee came a day after budget negotiations broke down between House GOP leaders and Edwards over how to close the state’s $304 million deficit in the short special session called by the governor.

Both plans were backed by the committee in largely party-line votes, with Democrats in opposition.

The first proposal, sponsored by Appropriations Chairman Cameron Henry, R-Metairie, would use nearly $75 million from Louisiana’s “rainy day” fund — $45 million less than the governor proposes.

In exchange, the plan approved in a 19-4 vote would cut state financing for public colleges, K-12 public schools and state prisons, areas Edwards sought to shield. And it would make larger cuts to the state health department than the governor wanted.

Henry acknowledged his recommendations would face resistance and claims the cuts would be too deep for some services and programs to maintain, but he said the state needs to permanently pare back its spending.

“Tough times,” he said.

A second plan sponsored by Reps. Tony Bacala, R-Prairieville, and Rick Edmonds, R-Baton Rouge, and backed in a 17-6 vote wouldn’t use rainy day fund money at all.

It would deepen cuts to health programs and a long list of other agencies but would keep colleges and prisons off the chopping block. In addition, the proposal would require the Edwards administration to assign another $60 million in cuts, which the lawmakers said would eliminate dollars earmarked for unfilled state jobs.

Both bills would decrease Edwards’ proposed cuts to Republican Attorney General Jeff Landry’s office.

The full House will debate the ideas Friday.

Democrats on the committee worried about the impact of the proposals.

“We’re not just dealing with a spreadsheet,” said Rep. Walt Leger, D-New Orleans. “There are actual human beings behind these numbers.”

Edwards calls for cutting $60 million from agencies, using $120 million from the rainy day fund and tapping into $120 million in other available financing to fill holes. The approach is backed by Senate leaders.

Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne, Edwards’ chief budget adviser, told Republican lawmakers he was stunned they would object to using the rainy day fund, a reserve account he said was set up specifically to fill budget gaps when they emerge. In a series of testy exchanges with Henry, he called on GOP legislators to explain how they’d make cuts.

“I met with the governor twice with a cut plan in my hand, and he said no,” Henry replied. “That was his part of the negotiation.”

Dardenne noted disagreements among House members and said the governor “doesn’t want to negotiate with a handful of legislators who don’t necessarily represent the will of this body.”

Objecting to Dardenne’s tone and comments, Rep. John Schroder said Edwards’ plan just patches through another year.

“The reality is we don’t live within our means,” said Schroder, R-Covington, his voice rising. “My problem is this doesn’t structurally fix anything. Absolutely nothing.”

The special session must end Feb. 22.

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