BATON ROUGE — Lawmakers in the House will consider making $87 million in deeper cuts to state spending this year than Gov. John Bel Edwards proposes, more than half of that to public school financing.
The proposal was approved with a 14-9 vote Wednesday by the Appropriations Committee and heads next to the full House for debate. The committee’s Democrats voted as a bloc against the cuts, joined by two Republicans and the panel’s lone independent.
The measure strikes at the governor’s efforts to shield K-12 education from most cuts, and approval came despite opposition from education officials who said the plans could damage classroom instruction and jeopardize spring standardized testing.
Supporters of the cuts, expected to be considered by the full House on Thursday, said Louisiana’s spending levels must be reduced. They said they’d rather make deeper cuts than raise taxes to fill most of the gap in a state struggling with an economic downturn.
“For every dollar that we are able to cut that we can come to some agreement on, that’s another dollar I don’t have to raise and take from someone’s pocket,” said Rep. Beryl Amedee, R-Gray.
Opponents of the reduction plan said the cuts would go too deep.
Rep. Walt Leger, D-New Orleans, said he worried about coastal projects that would be shut down, about further reductions to public defenders having difficulties keeping their doors open and about cuts to mental health services.
“I think we’re out of balance,” he said. “I think we need to generate more revenue.”
Edwards and lawmakers have already cut $60 million to rebalance this year’s budget, which had a gap ranging around $900 million.
The Democratic governor recommended another $30 million in reductions, along with tax hikes. But a group of Republicans on the Appropriations Committee are instead pushing a $117 million budget slashing plan, as a way to reduce tax increases.
The cuts would be made over four months, before the financial year ends June 30.
To go with the reductions, the House voted Wednesday for measures aimed at shrinking state spending on consulting contracts and at unlocking some restricted funds, allowing legislators to spread out cuts to more areas of the budget. Those proposals head to the Senate.
In the cuts package, more than $44 million would be stripped from the state’s local public school districts, and $2.5 million would be removed from the education department’s budget. Another $5 million slated for private and parochial schools would be cut.
“None of these cuts were pleasant,” said Appropriations Chairman Cameron Henry, R-Metairie. “That’s the political reality of where we are.”
Scott Richard, executive director of the Louisiana School Boards Association, said the dollars earmarked for the 69 school districts pay for teacher salaries, instruction for special education students and career development programs.
He urged the committee to “make sure we don’t balance our budget on the backs of the students across the state of Louisiana.”
Erin Bendily, an assistant superintendent with the Department of Education, said the cuts would hit standardized testing, hindering the state’s ability to administer the ACT college entrance exam and the other annual tests given to students in the spring.
Rep. Lance Harris, chairman of the House Republican Delegation, described the cuts as the hard decisions that have to be made to shrink the size of government.
“We have to fundamentally change how we’re doing business,” said Harris, R-Alexandria.
Rep. Patricia Smith, D-Baton Rouge, voted against the bill, saying the cuts went “overboard.” To Republicans who are resisting tax hikes, she said: “Many of you have drawn lines in the sand. I encourage you to own the consequences of it.”