House passes scaled-back $29B budget

BATON ROUGE – The GOP budget – that called for full TOPS funding and a $235 million cut from the Department of Health’s funding – passed the House relatively unscathed following five hours of debate Thursday, the only action at the Statehouse.

Following the addition of a few amendments, House Bill 1 passed, 63-40, more than half a billion dollars million less than Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, had requested in his $30 billion budget.

The vote followed party lines with only Rep. Neil Abramson, D-New Orleans, voting with the majority, and the division between Republicans and Democrats was clear from the meeting’s opening prayer from Rep. Katrina Jackson, D-Monroe.

“In a selfish prayer, you give [Republican leader] Lance Harris the wisdom to turn around and lead the Republicans in the way they should go.”

The approved budget only appropriates 97.5 percent of what the Revenue Estimating Conference’s forecast for revenue, a Republican-inspired precaution to prevent midyear shortfalls, something that has plagued the state in recent years.

HB1 now goes to the Senate which historically has attempted to have its way with revenue and spending bills which can only originate in the House. The Senate is expected to move the bill to committee sometime next week.

The Legislature has until sundown June 8 to come up with a fiscal plan for the next fiscal year that begins in seven weeks.

Rep. Walt Leger, D-New Orleans, criticized the budget for not making specific cuts and “punting” to the administration.

Throughout the debate, tensions flared between two of the House’s prominent Democrats – Leger and Rep. Sam Jones of Franklin – and Republican Rep. Cameron Henry of Metairie, who authored House Bill 1.

Leger and Henry sparred over cuts to the Department of Corrections, Leger accusing Henry of micromanaging how the department handles funded vacant positions. Moments later, Jones questioned whether Henry knew how cuts to the Department of Health would affect people.

Jones criticized Henry for not knowing the effects of his cuts, saying it was part of the appropriations process.

Henry said that question would be best directed to Rebekah Gee, secretary of the department, and encouraged Jones to call her to testify. Jones did not.

Jones had an amendment that would restore about $148,000 to the Office of Veterans Affairs to ensure no veteran’s cemeteries close. Homer Rogers, the office’s deputy secretary, said the office needs to buy new vehicles and computer software. He said it’s possible two cemeteries will close without the money.

The amendment failed 52-46.

The only major change to the budget came through an amendment from Rep. Patricia Smith, D-Baton Rouge. She proposed the House eliminate an amendment that the House Appropriations Committee added that would have appropriated $190 million of the federal flood relief money for the Comite River diversion project.

Rep. Valarie Hodges, R-Denham Springs, had proposed the amendment during the committee meeting.

Several legislators, including many from northern Louisiana, argued money should not be taken from homeowner assistance programs, particularly if the project would only benefit a small portion of the state. Hodges said the project would prevent future floods, but she eventually withdrew her objection to Smith’s amendment.

“I appreciate the dialogue,” Hodges said. “I think we can work together to find a better solution to this problem.”

An amendment – dubbed a “golden bullet” by its author, Rep. Rick Edmonds, R-Baton Rouge – to spur nursing home reform and save up to $200 million was voluntarily withdrawn a bill to that effect was scheduled be considered by the House Health and Welfare Committee later in the session.

In an unusual move, Leger supported the conservative Edmonds, saying he believed the bill would be killed in committee. Edmonds ultimately withdrew the amendment after the bill’s author, Rep. Tony Bacala, R-Prairieville, took the podium and asked to give the bill a chance.

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