The Louisiana House is sending to the Senate a budget proposal that would use about $74.6 million from the state's rainy day fund to help plug the state's $304 million mid-year deficit.
That vote wouldn't meet the threshold that is needed in a second vote to officially authorize the use of the fund, and critics claim that it relies on phantom money.
The House-approved plan would cut $115 million from the state budget that ends June 30. Much of the cuts would fall to the Louisiana Department of Health, though lawmakers added language to protect vulnerable programs for medically fragile children and the state's safety net hospitals.
The House debated the proposed cuts for nearly four hours on Friday, stretching through the afternoon and into the evening.
House Bill 3 now goes to the state Senate. The first stop — a Senate Finance Committee hearing — is slated for Saturday, where it is likely to be amended. It then will head to the full Senate for consideration, which presents another opportunity for changes. Lawmakers have until midnight Wednesday to come up with a final plan.
The final version of the House plan, which cuts $55 million more from the budget than Gov. John Bel Edwards had initially proposed, passed in a 57-39 vote. The chamber must still approve a separate measure that allows it to tap into the rainy day fund. That will require approval from two-thirds of the chamber's members, or 70 votes. The House is expected to take up that proposal on Sunday.
Edwards said after the House vote that he expects enough members will meet the 70 vote threshold to prevent the deal from "crashing down."
Gov. John Bel Edwards and conservative Republicans in the state House waged a behind-the-sce…
In one of the more contentious maneuvers the House made Friday, lawmakers voted 60-37 to eliminate a proposed cut the state's safety net hospital partners by counting vacant jobs in state government that supporters say the state can count as savings.
The same source of funding was used earlier in the day to eliminate a cuts to higher education, and it prompted no debate and no objections at that time.
The second vote was mostly along party lines, with Republicans, who control the chamber, agreeing to the proposal.
Democratic leaders, who said they regretted not challenging the funding in the first use, accused the GOP leadership of relying on "fake money" to prevent further use of the rainy day fund.
Edwards, a Democrat, has asked legislators to use $119.6 million from the state's reserves, which is the maximum amount allowed by law, but House Republicans have resisted going the full amount.
Edwards said that he was generally pleased with the progress that has been made on the budget as the special session hits its midway point, but he expects the Senate will make changes.
"I'm somewhat encouraged because there has been tremendous movement, but it's not as much as we should have had and part of it is fake," he said, referencing the dispute over the money that can be gleaned by closing out openings in state government. "They found this money that doesn't really exist."
Proponents of the plan to use the money from vacant positions discussed on the floor some 1,750 state government jobs that they say are funded but not filled.
Democrats questioned whether the money actually exists in those agencies budgets after an earlier round of cuts.
"That money's not real," said Rep. Sam Jones, D-Franklin. "There's not $8 million lying over here or lying over there. That's fake money."
Jones compared the proposal to the often-derided SAVE Act that the Legislature reluctantly passed in 2015 under the direction of then-Gov. Bobby Jindal.
On paper, SAVE represented a phantom fee that would be imposed on college students — but never seen — balanced out by an equally ambiguous tax credit.
It applied to every public college student in the state that year, but it never appeared on any bill and no one had to pay for it.
The Legislature quickly repealed the SAVE Act after Jindal left office last year.
The Democrats accused Republicans of pulling a similar "gimmick."
"This money doesn't exist," said Rep. Walt Leger III, D-New Orleans. "It's not real, but it is an easy way to solve a problem that is difficult."
Jones said he estimated, based on information from the Division of Administration, that about $5 million could be available through those funds.
The Legislature, through amendments on the floor, used at least $16 million attributed to it to prevent cuts that were earlier proposed for colleges and universities and the state's safety net hospitals.
Rep. Lance Harris, the Alexandria Republican who chairs the GOP Caucus, said that representatives spent "hours upon hours" to calculate what might be available in accounts because positions haven't been filled.
"All this business about 'fake money,' that's 'fake news,'" Harris said. "It's in the bank and it should be used."
House Appropriations Chair Cameron Henry said that he was eager to get the budget bill out of the House and on to the Senate. A final plan will be hashed out between the two chambers once they have their own versions in place. The legislation had to start in Henry's committee though, under the legislative rules.
"There's a bigger picture here and I can appreciate no one wants to make cuts," Henry said. "It is a miserable experience. It's not fun."
Leger, who serves as the House Speaker Pro Tempore, said that he was disappointed in the final bill that made it out of the House.
"I really don't think this is the best this body can do," Leger said. "I hope the Senate will actually find the money that we need to fund the services that we want to provide."
The plan cuts the state Department of Corrections by about $4.6 million. Edwards proposal had spared corrections from cuts. The head of the department recently has said that cuts would make prisons more dangerous.
"The idea that we would cut them is particularly problematic for that agency," Edwards said.
Henry defended the proposal, noting that prisons would still receive more funding than they did last year.