After more than a week of testimony from state agencies and constituents, the Louisiana House is now advancing cuts to the state budget that go much deeper than those Gov. John Bel Edwards has proposed.
The House Appropriations Committee on Wednesday approved a tax-slashing package that would cut $117 million from the budget that ends June 30.
“None of these cuts are pleasant,” said House Appropriations Chairman Cameron Henry, R-Metairie. “This is the fiscal position we are in right now, so we are doing the best with it.”
With Louisiana facing a $900 million shortfall in the current budget cycle, Edwards had asked the Legislature to trim $30 million from the budget and balance the rest with tax hikes. But his plan has been met with resistance — largely from the Republican-controlled House.
Edwards’ administration said Wednesday that it doesn’t agree with several items among the $87 million in additional reductions that the House budget-writing panel approved in a 14-9 vote. The governor was unable to immediately comment. The special session ends March 9.
“We believe the cuts already recommended by the governor are appropriate given the limited amount of time in the current fiscal year,” Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne said in a statement. “Unfortunately, the prior administration has saddled this administration and this Legislature with the largest budget deficit in the state’s history, premised on make-believe revenues and sleight-of-hand reductions that never materialized.”
The latest proposed cuts would come on top of the $60 million that Edwards and lawmakers already slashed under their authority without approval from the full Legislature.
The full House is expected to take up the proposal on Thursday, but several Democrats said they worried about the programs that face cuts.
“I’m very concerned,” said state Rep. Pat Smith, D-Baton Rouge. “There are cuts in here that affect folks from throughout the state of Louisiana.”
On the chopping block:
About $3.3 million that goes to 13 local Human Services Authority offices across the state
$2.8 million from the Office of State Police
$4.6 million from the Louisiana Stadium and Exposition District, the state agency that oversees the Superdome in New Orleans
And a proposed $44 million hit to funding for public schools.
“You do have a portion of your constituency who will suffer,” Smith told the Republican-packed budget panel. “If revenue isn’t raised, own the consequences.”
The Appropriations Committee voted for the proposal after nearly two hours of discussion that include testimony from parents of disabled children and advocates for education and public defenders, among others.
Legislative leaders have been signaling for weeks that revenue increases — mostly tax hikes — would need to at least be partially offset by cuts.
House Speaker Pro Tempore Walt Leger III, D-New Orleans, said he understands the public expects cuts if revenue is increased, but he noted that the state has been in a perpetual cycle of budget shortfalls in recent years.
“I think we are out of balance,” he said after pointing out several programs that face cuts. “I think we need to generate revenue.”
Edwards has proposed tapping into the state’s rainy day fund for another $128 million and pulling $200 in non-coastal money from the BP oil spill settlement to also help shore up the budget. Edwards’ revenue-generating proposals include a one-cent sales-tax hike and a 22-cent increase in the cigarette tax. He also has proposed higher taxes on alcohol and telephones and the elimination of some tax breaks for businesses and individuals.
Henry said budget leaders considered several factors in proposing additional cuts, including testimony they heard, feedback from legislators and financial details like the available funding programs had and their current burn rates.
Henry described the past week’s worth of work — parsing out what areas of the budget could take hits beyond what Edwards has proposed — as “not a pleasant process.”
“We had to take a long look at the governor’s plan,” Henry said. “We spent countless hours to determine the governor’s cuts and whether they could take additional cuts.”
Henry said staffers and lawmakers spent all weekend on the eventual proposal and solicited input from all members of the House.
“This was a long exercise,” he said.
But he noted that the process is far from over.
“As we continue to move forward, we can adjust it accordingly,” he said of the bill.
If the full House approves the proposal this week, then the measure will go to the Senate, where further changes could be made.
“We want to give them that opportunity to do that,” Henry said of possible changes from the Senate.
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