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Edwards’ budget would leave TOPS short

by Associated Press

BATON ROUGE — Fresh off a special session to close a deficit, Gov. John Bel Edwards on Thursday released his budget recommendations for next year, a plan that would leave the TOPS college program unable to cover full tuition costs and would trim most agencies’ spending.

The $29.7 billion operating budget proposal for the financial year that begins July 1 would leave gaps the Democratic governor hopes to fill, with as yet unidentified revenue sources.

“This is obviously not the budget we would like to propose to you. We think we have more needs in government that we all agree need to be funded,” said Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne, the governor’s chief budget adviser. “But unless and until new revenue is recognized, one way or the other, we have to live within our means.”

Edwards and lawmakers want to rewrite Louisiana’s tax laws in the legislative session that begins in April. The governor is expected to seek more money for the treasury as part of the overhaul, though he’s likely to see pushback from the majority-Republican Legislature.

Even without new income, spending would rise in Edwards’ budget plan. Most of the increase would come from a $1.7 billion boost in federal dollars for Louisiana’s Medicaid program, tied to new enrollees and services offered through the state’s Medicaid expansion.

Almost half the budget, $14.2 billion, would be spent on health programs, much of it federal financing. Education would account for 26 percent of spending.

Besides the health department, most agencies would take cuts.

Nearly all departments would be hit with a 2 percent across-the-board reduction in the general state tax dollars they receive. Many cuts made in the just-ended special session would become permanent. Rural hospitals and the privatized charity hospitals and services for the poor would get less money. A new juvenile lockup facility in Bunkie would remain unused.

The transportation department would be short of the money it needs to draw down available federal dollars for roadwork, leaving $173 million unclaimed even amid a multibillion-dollar backlog of road and bridge projects.

The TOPS program would only pay for about 70 percent of students’ tuition, just like this year. It would be the second time since the program’s start it wouldn’t completely cover tuition.

Dardenne said TOPS is the first gap Edwards wants to fill “in the event that new revenue is recognized.” The administration included that $82 million shortfall in the college tuition program on a $440 million wish list of sorts, outlining items recommended for additional spending if Louisiana has more money than currently expected.

Also on Edwards’ wish list are dollars to pay for state worker raises, boost payments to private prison operators, increase the K-12 public school financing formula and bump up spending on aid for low-income college students.

Republicans questioned the spending increases. Rep. John Schroder, R-Covington, asked whether it wouldn’t be wise to spend below Louisiana’s income forecast after nine years of continued budget shortfalls.

Democrats worried that cuts have carved too deeply in recent years.

“Government’s role is to help its citizens. I hope we get to continue to do that,” said Sen. Regina Barrow, D-Baton Rouge.

Release of Edwards’ budget proposals kicks off spending and tax negotiations for the upcoming legislative session. The release came a day after lawmakers ended a special session to rebalance this year’s budget, to erase a $304 million deficit, the second deficit of this year.

“Unfortunately, there’s no rest for the weary,” Dardenne said.

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