$67 million in savings ‘found’
and Drew White
LSU Manship School News Service
BATON ROUGE – Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee on Tuesday accused officials from the Louisiana Department of Health of not disclosing around $67 million in savings to the House while acknowledging the money to the Senate in the previous special session.
“It seems historic that every year more money is found when the bill goes to the other side,” said Cameron Henry, R-Metairie and the chair of the Appropriations Committee.
“Knowing we had this money out there, we might have done something differently,” he added, complaining that “we never seem to get all that information while you’re here.”
Jeff Reynolds, chief financial officer of the Health Department, told the committee that most of the savings, around $43 million, were part of the budget bill approved by Henry’s committee and the full House during the regular legislative session.
But the Health Department surprised lawmakers when it disclosed the $24 million in the final days of the previous special session that ended June 4. It said the money was the result of more Medicaid expansion savings than projected.
Henry was hoping to use the $67 million to address part of a $648 fiscal shortfall when temporary revenue measures expire on July 1. But Reynolds and Health Secretary Rebekah Gee said the governor’s office had directed them not to use one-time money to address recurring expenditures.
Henry also floated the idea of cutting a pay raise that health department employees are set to receive in July, but the health officials responded that the state civil service board would not allow that.
Gee said that some of the money came from the Federal Emergency Management Agency as a reimbursement for hurricanes, tornadoes and floods that have hit Louisiana in the past years.
Referring to the natural disasters that brought FEMA funds to the state, Health Secretary Rebekah Gee replied that “these are also acts of God that we can’t plan for.”
“We’re not in control of the process that FEMA has for reimbursing,” she added.
The budget passed by the Legislature in the previous legislative session and signed by Gov. John Bel Edwards protects the Health Department from serious cuts, but Henry suggested possible reductions on Tuesday, a move that the Senate opposes.
Under this budget, the health department would be funded at a total of $14 billion, making it the largest state agency. Out of this money, $2.48 billion of which would come from the state general fund.
The Appropriations Committee also heard testimonies from the presidents of the state’s university systems, who stressed the importance of TOPS for education and the significance of education for the state.
“We’re just asking for stability so we can do our jobs,” said LSU President F. King Alexander.
Meanwhile, the House Ways and Means Committee failed to make progress toward addressing the fiscal cliff after delaying votes for any revenue-raising measures.
Rep. Kenny Havard, R-St. Francisville, expressed frustration that no votes were taken by the panel with roughly half of its members absent.
The committee chairman, Rep. Neil Abramson, D-New Orleans, has missed a significant number of votes this year and was not there Tuesday.
“Are we going to vote on something tomorrow or is it going to be a big waste of time like today?” Havard asked impatiently.
Havard’s bill would renew a half-cent of the expiring sales tax and provide roughly $510 million to fill the state’s financial hole. It is identical to bills filed by Democratic Reps. Terry Landry, D-New Iberia, and Walt Leger, D-New Orleans.
All three measures are similar to one that fell seven votes short of the two-thirds necessary in the final moments of the previous special session.
“When we vote on something, I hope we consider more than one instrument that would limit us to what we can do,” Havard said.
Another bill by Rep. Stuart Bishop, R-Lafayette, would provide a half-cent sales tax renewal that gradually decreases to four tenths of a cent and then one-fourth of a penny.
“While this might not be ideal, I’m here in good faith to try and get us from Point A to Point B,” said Sen. Rick Ward, R-Allen, on Bishop’s behalf.
House Republican leaders also announced their plan this morning for Rep. Paula Davis, R-Baton Rouge, to file a bill that would extend two-fifths of the expiring penny.
Davis’ bill would provide about $412 million, short of what Edwards requested by almost $100 million.
Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne pleaded with the panel to re-institute a half cent of the expiring sales tax, detailing the serious consequences to various state agencies if there is not enough revenue.