Housebudget

The Louisiana House Appropriations Committee takes up the budget bill for the special session on Monday, June 12, 2017.

Advocate staff photo by Bill Feig

Leaders from Louisiana colleges and universities, the state Department of Health, prisons and social services programs got another chance Monday to plead for their budgets to be protected from dramatic cuts in the coming year.

The House Appropriations Committee has resumed efforts to build a budget after last week's regular session dramatically ended with no spending plan for the state budget that begins July 1.

And House Republican leaders are starting with a plan that mirrors their earlier push that the state spend about $200 million less than the state is expected to have available. The Senate and Gov. John Bel Edwards have said that they disagree and want the state to appropriate all of the money.

Both the House and Senate have Republican majorities, but the House is more conservative and the Senate is more closely aligned with Edwards, a Democrat.

The Appropriations Committee is expected to continue its budget hearing Tuesday, with the full House taking up the budget on Wednesday. 

For several hours, department heads detailed what the cuts would mean on the ground.

The Department of Health would have to scale back mental health programs and abandon Zika virus prevention efforts. The state's food stamp program, which is federally funded but must be administered with some state dollars, could be at risk, and a money-saving technology consolidation won't take place, according to the Division of Children and Family Services.

LSU has become a prime "poaching ground" as lower-level professors eye opportunities for stability and growth in other states that could worsen without a commitment to funding higher education.

And hundreds of non-violent prisoners could be released from prisons early, as corrections faces cutbacks. "This is where we are, our backs are against the wall," Corrections Secretary Jimmy LeBlanc said.

But the central dispute that created the budget impasse on the final day of session Thursday dominated much of the narrative during Monday's hearing.

"To have a conversation about needs and wants is almost irrelevant," said Rep. John Schroder, R-Covington. "This is a conversation about what can we afford."

House Republican leaders maintain that the state has experienced 15 mid-year budget deficits in the past nine years. They say that they want to spend less money on the front end, leaving money on the table to serve as a "cushion" if revenues again don't meet expectations.

"Everybody would like more money than they were given last year; the fact is it doesn't exist," said House Appropriations Chair Cameron Henry, R-Metairie.

The special session is limited only to the state operational and construction budgets. Lawmakers cannot consider tax hikes or other ways to increase revenue.

"People in this state do not want to pay any more in taxes," said Rep. Steve Pylant, R-Winnsboro. "Maybe we need to give them the size of government they want."

During last week's negotiations, House leadership worked down to leaving about $100 million unspent in the coming year, while the Senate negotiators pushed for $50 million to come through the appropriations process but with an instruction for agency heads to not spend the money.

A separate House bill has been proposed by House Speaker Pro Tempore Walt Leger III that reflects the Senate version.

Another outstanding issue between the two chambers was again raised during the Appropriations hearing. The House wants to freeze some vacant positions in state government and target them for elimination to save money.

Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne said the state cannot control when there are openings in necessary jobs and that exceptions would be needed for that effort. "That's not the way that any business or government should be allowed to operate," he said.

The Administration has also called on legislators to be more direct about programs that they no longer want to fund.

"The agencies believe that everything they do is in statute," said Barry Dusse, director of the governor's Office of Planning and Budget.

Follow Elizabeth Crisp on Twitter, @elizabethcrisp.