BATON ROUGE — Louisiana’s state senators on Wednesday backed a $26 billion spending plan for government operations next year that would slash spending to the TOPS college tuition program, safety-net health care for the poor and a wide array of government services.
Even as they voted 37-2 for the budget proposal, senators already had an eye toward a looming special session that could raise more money to help chip away at a $600 million shortfall in the financial year that begins July 1.
“We came into the session with the inability to raise any revenue, so the only thing we’re here to do is decide how to impose $600 million in cuts,” Finance Committee Chairman Eric LaFleur told senators as he opened debate on the budget.
He added: “If you want to give a dollar to somebody, you have to take it from somebody else.”
While the House spent two days of floor debate on the budget, senators didn’t do much reshuffling of the money in their hourlong review of the bill. Most of that work was done in the Senate Finance Committee earlier in the week.
Senate passage sends the budget bill back to the House for negotiations on a final version, with only five days remaining in the legislative session. LaFleur, D-Ville Platte, expects a compromise to be struck in a six-member conference committee.
Gov. John Bel Edwards has called a special session to start minutes after the current session ends Monday, for lawmakers to consider taxes to lessen cuts. That means if lawmakers reach a budget deal this session, that won’t necessarily be the final word on the state’s spending plans for next year.
Senate President John Alario, R-Westwego, said the budget is “woefully short of what we need” for critical services.
“There are lots of things that are not funded that are going to cause people some grief,” he said.
The Senate budget proposal would provide 48 percent of the financing needed to fully pay for all students eligible for TOPS and would cut spending on the safety-net hospitals that care for the poor and uninsured. Higher education, the LSU medical schools and K-12 public schools would be on the chopping block, along with public safety and child welfare programs, state parks and museums.
But the Medicaid “waiver” programs that provide home- and community-based care for the elderly and disabled would be spared from cuts. That was made a priority by senators moved by the testimony of families who rely on those services.
LaFleur said if lawmakers raise $450 million in the special session, it would cover most identified, remaining priorities.
The Edwards administration prefers the Senate version of the budget to the bill passed by the House.
The House version would have provided about three-quarters of the money needed for TOPS. But it came up with that money by diverting fees people pay for services away from agencies providing those services. Senators didn’t believe the diversion was legal and reversed it.
Senators also refused a House-backed plan to give Attorney General Jeff Landry his own budget bill, incorporating his agency back into the main budget.
House Appropriations Committee Chairman Cameron Henry, R-Metairie, raised several concerns about the Senate proposal. For example, the Senate uses $17 million in disputed utility tax payments from chemical plants to help pay for the Medicaid program.
“The litigation is still ongoing. It hasn’t been settled. We don’t have access to it. We don’t even know when that money’s going to come in,” Henry said.
He also said he expected lawmakers in the House to object to a Senate proposal that would let the state health department determine how to divvy up the reductions to the safety net hospitals. And he said senators added money back to departments that said they could handle the cuts proposed by the House.