The Louisiana House has agreed to a nearly $29 billion spending plan that has full funding for TOPS scholarships in the coming year but doesn't fund the state agencies that oversee health and social services to the levels that leaders say is needed to pay for critical programs.
House Bill 1 now heads to the Senate, where it will likely be changed in the coming weeks as lawmakers work to reach an agreement on the budget that begins July 1.
The legislative session must end by June 8. The Senate Finance Committee is expected to begin its work vetting the spending proposal next week. Typically, the state budget is hashed out in negotiations between the upper and lower chambers in the final days of the session.
The proposal that passed the House on Friday after a nearly five hour debate largely mirrors the recommendations made by the House Republican leadership and endorsed by the House Appropriations Committee earlier in the week.
The House proposal would spend about 97.5 percent of the money that the state's projected to have in the coming year. GOP leaders said that the extra 2.5 percent left over would provide a cushion in case revenues don't meet expectations.
"This is a more difficult way to budget, I think that's something you have to understand," House Appropriations Chair Cameron Henry, R-Metairie, said. "It's a hard way to do this, but it's the right way to do it."
"We cannot continue down the path of mid-year cuts," he added.
During the course of the debate, House Democrats had pushed back on areas that affect health care, prisons and social services, including foster care, but there was little movement.
"It's a transparent attempt to cut the budget deeply and hide those facts by telling the Division of Administration to do the dirty work," said House Speaker Pro Tempore Walt Leger III, D-New Orleans.
After the Appropriations Committee had advanced its spending plan earlier in the week, leaders in Gov. John Bel Edwards decried the proposal as "draconian," "gruesome" and "a nonstarter."
Edwards, himself, said Thursday after the entire House approved the budget in a mostly party-line 63-40 vote that he was looking forward to working with the Senate to craft a more bipartisan proposal. He said the House Republican-backed measure is "flawed" one that "would send us tumbling backwards."
"We can't move Louisiana forward if we're standing still," Edwards said. "Their budget guts health care, children’s services and veteran services to levels that endanger the health and welfare of the people of Louisiana. When politicians craft policies without the input of the experts in a field, you know you’re getting a bad deal, and that’s how this budget was drafted."
Edwards had originally recommended a budget that boosted the Department of Health by an additional $235 million to fund optional and behavioral programs. Part of that money originally meant for LDH was then shifted to fund the popular Taylor Opportunity Program for Students, a scholarship program for Louisiana high schoolers who attend college in state.
TOPS was funded at about 70 percent in the current year's budget.
Edwards, a Democrat, had listed TOPS as his No. 1 priority for funding if the Legislature agreed to tax proposals that would generate more revenue.
Edwards administration has argued that the funding levels offered in the House budget proposal would threaten the state's compliance with federal orders regarding behavioral health services and cut the number of psychiatric beds; eliminate jobs that deal with child welfare; and lead to furloughs for some prison inmates.
"This impacts people's lives," said Rep. Sam Jones, D-Franklin. "This is life or death."
Jones, who repeatedly asked Henry for the number of people impacted by the cut to the Department of Health, said after the vote that he could have been convinced to vote in favor of the GOP-backed plan had he been given a clear answer. "If he could have answered the question, maybe he would have gotten more votes," Jones said.
Henry said that he believes LDH, the state's most costly agency, can absorb the budget stresses. He said that critical services haven't been cut in recent years as the agency took mid-year cuts.
"You will hear throughout the process that we are making devastating cuts to every agency," he said.