With a majority of Louisiana's GOP-controlled House voting against the chamber's conservative leaders, the Legislature appears close to approving a budget that will use all of the $29 billion expected to be available in the coming year.
The House voted 56-44 on Wednesday to approve the budget after nearly four hours of debate that centered on just how much the state should spend after it has consistently failed to meet budget projections in recent years. The proposal now heads to the Senate, where leaders have already expressed support.
Senate Finance Chairman Eric LaFleur, D-Ville Platte, said his committee will hear the proposal on Thursday. The full Senate is likely to vote on it Friday. The special session, which was prompted by the Legislature's failure to reach a budget agreement during its two-month regular session, must end by Monday.
"I expect it to go smoothly," LaFleur said of the rest of the budget bill's journey. He said it's possible the upper chamber could make no changes, which would speed up the process and prevent a reversal in the House.
The latest version also has the support of Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat.
In the ongoing effort to hash out a nearly $29 billion state budget for the coming year, Hou…
“While it still imposes cuts across state government, it does so in a responsible way that adequately funds our needs without negatively impacting the most vulnerable among us," Edwards said in a statement.
Both the House and Senate are majority Republican, but the House is generally more conservative while the Senate is more closely aligned with Edwards.
The latest budget proposal would fully fund the popular Taylor Opportunity Program for Students; implement a plan for pay raises for 38,000 state employees; and provide funding for the Bunkie juvenile facility to open.
While it cuts health care spending, the latest version doesn't cut higher education, prisons or social services as steeply as the House's initial plan had proposed.
But unlike traditional budget debates that focus on shifting dollars between programs and priorities, the most contested issue this year has been whether the state should budget all the money it expects to have.
On paper, the latest budget agreement is a big win for the Senate, House Democrats and Edwards, who had resisted a push from House Republican leaders who wanted to leave several million dollars unused as a symbol of their commitment to cutting spending and a "cushion" in case the state faces another mid-year budget deficit.
Instead, the latest bill instructs state agencies to save $60 million in the coming year through a "deficit avoidance plan."
"I think it's a good, fair compromise," said Senate President John Alario, R-Westwego.
It's similar to a proposal that the Senate offered the House less than a week ago in the final hours of the regular session.
Thirteen Republicans broke from House leadership to aid in its passage, while 10 supported a crucial amendment that paved the way toward spending all money available.
Leaders from Louisiana colleges and universities, the state Department of Health, prisons an…
House Speaker Taylor Barras, a New Iberia Republican who voted against the bill, said its passage didn't entirely come as a surprise based on conversations he has had with more moderate members of the chamber.
He said that he thought it was a good exercise for the House to debate various options before deciding whether members wanted to spend all of the money available or not.
"We were able to deliberate it in full," he said.
House Appropriations Chair Cameron Henry, a Metairie Republican who had been the most prominent proponent of deliberately leaving money out of the budget, was not present for Wednesday's debate. Henry had traveled to Washington, D.C., early Wednesday after his political mentor, U.S. House Majority Whip Steve Scalise of Jefferson, was critically injured in a shooting. Henry's brother is an aide to Scalise.
Barras said that he felt that directing $60 million in savings was at least a reflection of the House's effort to pare back spending.
"The Senate wouldn't support any cut," he said.
Several of the chamber's more conservative members, who had continued to push to set aside $206 million to $100 million in the coming year, said they were disappointed in the final outcome.
"Once again, we are spending what perhaps we don't have," said Rep. Jack McFarland, R-Winnfield.
The deal closely resembles a budget proposal offered by the Senate in the final hours of the regular legislative session that never came to a vote. In that proposal, $50 million would have been set aside.
Barras has faced some criticism in recent days for blocking procedural maneuvers to secure a vote on the Senate proposal. On Wednesday, he said he didn't regret delaying the vote to a special session, which cost the state thousands of dollars each extra day lawmakers were in Baton Rouge.
"I'm not so sure it would have passed in those last few minutes," Barras said. "It would have been a tougher vote on Thursday."
Voting to approve the state budget (56): Reps Abramson, Anders, Armes, Bagneris, Billiot, Bouie, Broadwater, C. Brown, T. Brown, Carpenter, G. Carter, R. Carter, Chaney, Connick, Danahay, Foil, Franklin, Gaines, Gisclair, Glover, Guinn, Hall, J. Harris, Havard, Hill, Hoffmann, Hunter, Ivey, Jackson, James, Jefferson, Jenkins, Johnson, Jones, Jordan, T. Landry, LeBas, Leger, Lyons, Magee, Marcelle, Marino, D. Miller, Moreno, Norton, Pierre, Pope, Price, Reynolds, Shadoin, Smith, Stagni, Stokes, Thibaut, White and Zeringue.
Voting against House Bill 1 (46): Speaker Barras, Reps Abraham, Amedee, Bacala, Bagley, Bishop, Carmody, S. Carter, Coussan, Crews, Cromer, Davis, DeVillier, Dwight, Edmonds, Emerson, Falconer, Garofalo, L. Harris, Hazel, Hensgens, Hilferty, Hodges, Hollis, Horton, Howard, Huval, N. Landry, Leopold, Mack, McFarland, Miguez, G. Miller, Jay Morris, Jim Morris, Pearson, Pugh, Pylant, Richard, Schexnayder, Schroder, Seabaugh, Simon, Stefanski, Talbot and Thomas.
Not Voting (3): Reps. Berthelot, Cox and Henry