House budget panel rejects Edwards’ deficit-closing plan

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BATON ROUGE — With the special session nearing its halfway mark, House Republicans on Thursday spurned Gov. John Bel Edwards’ approach to rebalancing this year’s budget, refusing to send it to the full House for consideration.

The majority-GOP House Appropriations Committee voted down the Democratic governor’s proposal for closing the state’s $304 million deficit, contained in a bill sponsored by Rep. Walt Leger, D-New Orleans.

A day earlier, the panel advanced two options offered by Republicans that would cut more deeply — and use less from the state’s “rainy day” fund — than the governor wants. The full House is expected to debate those ideas Friday.

Less than a week remains in the special session. The Senate is awaiting action from the House, because the constitution requires the budget cut bills to start there.

Edwards Proposal

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

Leger and other Democrats on the committee urged their colleagues to send the bill containing the governor’s plan to the House floor for consideration.

“It is only fair,” said Rep. Patricia Smith, D-Baton Rouge.

But House Republican leaders don’t want to use as much rainy day fund money, and some don’t want to tap into the savings account at all. Fifteen lawmakers on the committee, nearly all Republicans, voted against Leger’s bill. Seven committee members, most Democrats, voted for the measure.

Up For Debate Friday

Democrats can try to keep pushing the governor’s plan, with attempts to rewrite one of the two budget-rebalancing bills up for debate Friday to include the Edwards approach.

The first proposal, sponsored by Appropriations Chairman Cameron Henry, R-Metairie, would use nearly $75 million from Louisiana’s “rainy day” fund. It 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.

The second plan, sponsored by Rep. Rick Edmonds, R-Baton Rouge, wouldn’t use rainy day fund money at all. It would deepen cuts to health programs and other agencies, but would spare colleges and prisons. The Edwards administration, however, would have to dole out another $60 million in cuts, aimed at eliminating dollars earmarked for unfilled state jobs.

Rainy Day Fund Vote

To use money from the rainy day fund requires a two-thirds vote from lawmakers for separate legislation. It remains unclear if such a measure can reach the high hurdle in the conservative House.

Angela Lorio, whose 3-year-old son uses a tube to breathe and relies on help from the state’s health programs, urged lawmakers in Thursday’s Appropriations Committee hearing to tap the reserves.

“It just makes sense, please, please,” Lorio said. “It was intended for budget stress. It was intended for times of trouble. And we’re in trouble.”

House Republican leaders say the state needs to pare back its spending long-term to better match the state’s income.

“We’re trying to get the budget on stable ground,” Henry said.

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