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Louisiana senators hear grim predictions of budget impact

by Minden Press-Herald

BATON ROUGE — Gov. John Bel Edwards’ administration has presented to senators a grim picture of the fallout from the House-proposed version of next year’s budget, with the governor threatening a veto if anything resembling the spending plan reaches his desk.

Over dozens of hours of hearings, agency leaders say they’d have to release prisoners early, shutter health programs and damage critical services in the financial year that begins July 1. House Republican leaders who drew up the plan call that scare tactics and say state government can’t afford the spending trajectory proposed by the Democratic governor.

The House passed a budget, opposed by nearly all of its Democratic members, that would leave $206 million on the table, to hedge against GOP leaders’ expectations that state income estimates are too rosy.

Appropriations Chairman Cameron Henry, a Republican who had a heavy hand in drafting the House version, predicted agencies would tell lawmakers “the world’s going to fall apart” under the scaled-back spending plan. But he said he didn’t believe that was true.

Edwards replied that without the money, health services, the child welfare agency and prisons would face unnecessary, harmful cuts.

The Senate Finance Committee is expected to unveil senators’ version of the spending plans this week. Chairman Eric LaFleur, a Democrat, said senators of both parties want to add more money into the spending plan, but he said he’s also been told by House Republicans that tapping into the unspent dollars is “a deal-breaker” for them.
Lawmakers have two weeks to reach a deal before the legislative session ends June 8.

The budget proposal includes $237 million less in state financing than Edwards wanted. Health Secretary Rebekah Gee said the number balloons to nearly $1 billion when counting lost federal match dollars.

Gee told senators she’d have to eliminate Medicaid mental health services, Zika prevention efforts and a program that provides specialized health services to disabled children.

“By and large, we would have no mental health services. Think of what that would do to our communities,” she said. But she said other options for divvying the reduction would be equally unsavory: “I could cut hospice and people would die in pain. I could cut hemodialysis and people could die next week.”

House Republicans note that even with the reduction, the total health department budget would grow by nearly $2 billion in federal financing, largely tied to the Medicaid expansion program.

Sen. Jack Donahue, a Mandeville Republican, told Gee during her budget hearing that health care spending in Louisiana over the last eight years has grown at a rate that is jeopardizing other needed services.

“It’s burying us. It’s not sustainable,” he said.

College leaders, facing a $16 million cut proposed both by Edwards and the House, said they are struggling to keep up with peer institutions in other states after years of state funding reductions.

“This has been a decade of cuts. This is the 17th one on its way. And now you’re seeing the consequences,” said LSU System President F. King Alexander, describing lost faculty and students choosing to leave the state for other schools.

“We’re outpunching our weight, but the question is how long can we keep doing this, losing our best people?” Alexander told senators.

House Republicans took $82 million Edwards proposed for health care spending and shuffled it to the TOPS free college tuition program, to give full tuition funding to eligible students, rather than a pro-rated, lesser amount.

Republican Senate President John Alario and LaFleur said senators want to keep TOPS at full funding as the House proposed, though LaFleur acknowledged that “with a limited amount of dollars,” it will be at some other program’s expense.

Corrections Secretary Jimmy LeBlanc said the House version of the budget could jeopardize safety at the prisons and would force him to release nearly 4,700 nonviolent inmates early over the next year. The head of the military department said the House proposal would require him to shrink a popular boot camp program for troubled youth.

Treasurer Ron Henson was among the rare budget hearings in the Senate, telling senators two weeks ago: “We feel like this is an adequate budget, and we appreciate it.”

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