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Sen. eric LaFleur, left, D-Ville Platte, talks with Sen. conrad Appel, right, R-Metairie, in a scene during activity in the Louisiana Senate, Thursday, April 20, 2017.

ADVOCATE STAFF PHOTO BY TRAVIS SPRADLING

State senators on Monday began sifting through the House Republican-backed budget plan that the lower chamber agreed to last week.

Several members of the Senate Finance Committee voiced concern about provisions within the House plan, but the panel wasn't yet ready to reveal how the spending proposal might change in the upper chamber.

State Sen. Regina Barrow, D-Baton Rouge, said she was frustrated by the plan that would only appropriate about 97.5 percent of the money that is projected to be available to the state during the budget cycle that begins July 1. Some agencies, including the Department of Children and Family Services, could be forced to cut services.

"I'm just at a loss for words," she said.

Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, has said he would eventually support the state not appropriating the money available but he doesn't think the state is in a position to save currently.

"I would suggest that the service level we ought to expect as a state isn't satisfied by leaving $230 million on the table," Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne, Edwards' chief budget architect, told the Finance Committee.

But some members appeared open to the idea of the state having a cushion to soften any potential shortfall in the coming year. The state has had at least 15 mid-year deficits in the past nine years.

"We need to do something to control the costs," said Sen. Jack Donohue, a Mandeville Republican who cautioned that he had not had a chance to review the entire House-approved plan. "We constantly at mid-year have these budget cuts ... why not take the bull by the horn and do it now?"

In a near party-line vote on Thursday, the House agreed to send a budget to the Senate that would fully-fund scholarships through the popular Taylor Opportunity Program for Students, but would not fund DCFS or the Department of Health, among others, at the levels they say they need to keep up with growing costs.

The House plan is about $235 million less than Edwards' budget recommendation, which he said was about $440 million short of funding what he views as the state's top priorities.

"Those will be very significant, very meaningful cuts," Dardenne said, adding that he took issue with House leaders' view that they shouldn't be called "cuts" when the state isn't giving more funding to keep up with retirement and other costs on the rise.

"I would suggest that it is a cut because it's a reduction in services that have been provided in the past but wouldn't be going forward," Dardenne said.

Over the coming week, the Senate Finance Committee is expected to vet the budget proposal and hear from agency heads about how they would be impacted if the House plan were to be implemented.

Dardenne told the panel that two provisions in particular – one eliminating vacant positions and another that would prohibit departments from shifting money around to cover other costs – were cause for concern.

He said that forcing agencies to eliminate every position that comes open is "irresponsible and untenable" when discussing a government with about 62,600 classified and unclassified full-time equivalent employees.

"There are vacancies that crop up on a daily basis," Dardenne said. "At any given moment in time, someone's going to retire, someone will be fired, someone will be promoted."

By law, the state has to fully-fund some areas of the budget and some services within departments. The House budget plan also outlines certain protected areas, including otherwise optional programs for medically fragile children, and restricts how cuts can be made to some programs, such as the public-private safety-net hospital partners.

The Revenue Estimating Conference, which sets the states revenue projections, is scheduled to meet next week to update its forecast for the coming year. Lawmakers may opt to wait until they get news about the money available before moving more quickly to advance a spending plan.

"I feel kind of like we are shooting in the dark until we get new projections," said Sen. Conrad Appel, R-Metairie.

Follow Elizabeth Crisp on Twitter, @elizabethcrisp.