Louisiana budget shortfall shrinks in latest estimate ahead of 'debate over priorities, 'how much money is available' _lowres

Advocate staff photo by BILL FEIG -- Senate Finance Committee chairman Eric LaFleur, D-Ville Platte, left, listens Monday along with Sen. Ronnie Johns, R-Lake Charles, right.

The Louisiana Legislature is one step closer to finalizing a state spending plan, but, as is typically the case, lawmakers are taking their work on the budget down to the wire as the session's end rapidly approaches.

The Senate Finance Committee on Thursday agreed to a plan that would fully fund the popular Taylor Opportunity Program for Students scholarships and eliminate House-proposed cuts to colleges, prisons and social services. But the Senate Finance proposal includes no "cushion" in spending – money left over if the state faces a deficit in the coming year. Citing repeated shortfalls in recent years, House leaders had recommended the state should set aside about $206 million in favor of deeper cuts to programs.

The Senate Finance plan would cut many agencies by about 2 percent, but it spares higher education, prisons and the Division of Children and Family Services from the across-the-board trim. It also would cut the state Department of Health lower than the House had suggested.

In addition, Senate budget leaders argued that the lower chamber didn't fund supplemental expenses that are expected or attempt to restore funding that higher education and others are expected to lose as dedicated funds come in below expectations.

"I think it's coming out in a better shape from this committee than we received it," Senate Finance Chair Eric LaFleur, D-Ville Platte, said of the latest version of the budget proposal.

The House passed its version a month ago. In the weeks since, Senate leaders have held hearings and delved deeply into the implications of cuts to health care, social services and other programs.

Sen. Sharon Hewitt, R-Slidell, said she thought that it was appropriate to evaluate cuts and target them to lessen the blow.

"I think this is a very responsible approach," she said. "I think we made some very good choices."

Sen. Jim Fannin, a Jonesboro Republican who previously chaired the House Appropriations Committee, said he agreed in principle with the idea of setting money to the side, but didn't think it would be proper this year.

"It was hoped that as we worked through the process that maybe we could leave some of that available," Fannin said. "In reality, the supplemental budget didn't come funded at all from the House."

The Legislature traditionally appropriates all funds that are estimated to be available in a given year. Recent collections have lagged those projections, creating at least 15 mid-year deficits in the past decade.

"I would think that the House would think this is a responsible budget," said Sen. Jack Donahue, R-Mandeville.

The full Senate is expected to take up the budget proposal on Saturday. Leaders from the House and Senate traditionally hash out a final agreement in negotiations that take place in the final days of the legislative session.

The regular session must end June 8. Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, on Wednesday issued a call for a special session to begin 30 minutes after the regular session ends – a "precautionary" move he said would give legislators more time to craft a final agreement if it's needed. Special sessions must be called a week before they take place, so Edwards had to issue the call in advance to match the timeline with the session's end.

Special sessions cost the state about $60,000 a day, according to legislative estimates. Edwards has called three other special sessions – each dealing with budgetary issues – since taking office in January 2016.

Edwards, who had called the House budget plan a "non-starter," praised the Senate Finance version on Thursday as "appropriate."

"Make no mistake, this budget will still impose painful spending cuts, but it does so in way that won’t overly burden citizens of the state," he said. "If this budget makes its way through the process, the need for a special session this summer will be greatly diminished."

Follow Elizabeth Crisp on Twitter, @elizabethcrisp.