Budget progresses, but is it fast enough?

Louisiana budget bills start moving amid concerns over pace

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — After a week of inaction, Louisiana House lawmakers Tuesday started advancing budget bills to chart spending on state government operations next year and account for $400 million in new taxes supported by the chamber.

Amid pressure from colleagues worried time is running short, Appropriations Chairman Cameron Henry introduced the package of budget measures Tuesday afternoon. His committee then quickly advanced them to the House floor without objection.

Still, Democrats worried that Henry, a Republican, isn’t moving with enough urgency to pass a spending plan before the special session must end June 4, raising the risk of a third special session this year. Rep. Major Thibaut, a New Roads Democrat, was concerned the full House isn’t debating the package of budget bills until Thursday.

“Isn’t anybody concerned about getting out of here?” Thibaut asked. “We need to get things going.”

The state is expected to bring in $648 million less in general state tax dollars in the financial year that begins July 1, due to expiring taxes. Lawmakers are considering replacement taxes in the special session, with nearly $400 million in taxes for next year winning support from the House on Monday.

Gov. John Bel Edwards vetoed a previous $28.5 billion spending plan for next year that reached his desk. It contained deep cuts across government agencies that the governor said would be “catastrophic” for critical services.

Before Tuesday, Henry had argued that Edwards’ veto and constitutional restrictions slowed down the budget process, essentially requiring legislators to start from scratch in the special session. The Edwards administration and Democratic lawmakers suggested Henry was dragging his feet in retaliation for the veto and should use the rejected budget as the starting point.

The steps that Henry said are necessary haven’t always been used in prior sessions. And he largely discarded the steps Tuesday after pushback from Democrats and some Republicans.

“I’m adopting more what the will of the body is,” Henry said.

Henry’s package of budget bills would account for the money already available — and the taxes backed by the House. It would avoid steep cuts across agencies, though it would still reduce spending on public colleges and public safety programs. The TOPS college tuition program would take a 10 percent cut.

Nursing home residents and the safety-net hospitals would be shielded, but other health services would take hits. The budget would contain $69 million less in state financing for the health department than the spending plan vetoed by the governor. That prompted criticism from Rep. Patricia Smith.

“You’re really trying to put poor people out,” said Smith, a Baton Rouge Democrat.

Earlier Tuesday, several protesters advocating for a “moral budget” were removed from the Appropriations Committee after shouting at lawmakers and refusing to leave. They were representing the Poor People’s Campaign, a group of anti-poverty activists organized around the country.

A competing budget proposal from Rep. Walt Leger, a New Orleans Democrat, also was sent to the House floor.
Lawmakers still have time to get a budget done before the special session ends. Last year, they crafted a multibillion-dollar spending plan in five days.

Henry previously had suggested he didn’t want to move a budget until taxes raised during the special session were officially recognized by Louisiana’s Revenue Estimating Conference.

But the House and Senate regularly plug dollars into budget bills using projections from their financial analysts — dollars later recognized by the conference before a new budget year begins so they’re authorized for spending. In their second special session of 2016, lawmakers passed a budget and taxes together. The dollars were formally recognized a few days later.

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