The Louisiana House sent a $25 billion state operating budget to the governor’s desk Tuesday that no longer relies on selling prisons or shrinking state workers’ pay.
By agreeing to the Senate’s changes to House Bill 1 on a 101-0 vote, the House avoided a behind-the-scenes showdown to strike a compromise in the final days of the legislative session.
Budget approval without opposition with two days to spare is a rare occurrence in the state.
HB1 funds state government operations in the fiscal year that starts July 1.
“We have an instrument today that meets our needs (and) does not meet our wants,” said state Rep. Jim Fannin, D-Jonesboro, the budget bill’s sponsor.
Later in the day, Gov. Bobby Jindal praised the legislation as a budget that protects critical services such as health care and higher education.
“The end result is a great budget for Louisiana,” the governor said.
The budget is balanced with $11 billion in federal funds. The rest of the revenue is generated by the state.
The spending plan would chop hundreds of state government jobs.
An economic development “megafund” would be used to fund the popular TOPS college scholarship program.
Absent from the legislation are projects for lawmakers’ districts. The bill usually is studded with the projects, but Fannin said there was not enough money for the projects this year.
The House and the Senate both fiddled with the proposed budget that Jindal presented in March.
The governor wanted to help erase a $1.6 billion shortfall by selling three prisons and forcing state workers to pay more toward retirement costs.
The House resisted using what members characterized as one-time dollars for expenses that must be met year after year.
They argued it would be irresponsible to use cash from a prison sale to pay health-care costs for the poor.
By purging that money, the House made roughly $200 million in cuts across state government.
The Jindal administration said the reductions would close prisons and cripple health care. House leaders accused the administration of exaggerating.
The Senate did the state government equivalent of combing for cash. Senate leaders found $59 million in reimbursements for hurricane costs, $25 million in unneeded state construction money and other cash.
Using the newly found money, the Senate reversed cuts that would have been made to health-care and other state services.
The changes appeased the House because they do not rely on uncertainties such as the future sale of prisons.
“It’s amazing what happens down here when you can communicate and work together,” Fannin said.
He criticized comments made by the Jindal administration and state department heads about the devastating effects of the House’s cuts, saying the remarks were inaccurate and unhelpful.
“There’s no smoke and mirrors. It is an honest-to-God balanced budget,” state Rep. John Bel Edwards, D-Amite, said.
State Rep. Tim Burns, R-Mandeville, asked Fannin why it was left to the Senate to discover the money that warded off the reductions.
Fannin said that was the first thing he asked his staff. He said only the Jindal administration would have known that some of the money existed.
“I’m certainly disappointed that I did not know (the dollars) were there,” Fannin said.
Jindal said later in the day that House members needed to understand what would happen if they cut $200 million from the state spending plan.
The governor said his staff tried to meet with House Speaker Jim Tucker, R-Terrytown, to show him how one-time money could be matched to one-time expenses.
He said Tucker never scheduled the meeting.
Jindal said his administration kept House leaders in the loop while working with the Senate to undo the cuts.
“It did get fixed,” the governor said.