Senate state budget debate

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Eric LaFLeur, D-Ville Platte, leads debate over the $29 billion state budget during a session held Saturday, June 3, 2017.

Advocate Photo by Mark Ballard

The State Senate has advanced the state budget for the coming year, a week before lawmakers are set to meet in another special session to try to address a nearly $650 million gap in the coming year that has led to deep cuts to most state agencies.

The chamber had little discussion of the actual specifics of where dollars would go under the proposed spending plan, with senators acknowledging that the final version of House Bill 1 won't come until the special session, after legislators consider revenue-raising proposals to replace temporary tax measures that expire June 30.

The Senate voted 27-10 in favor of the proposal – described by many as more of a demonstration than an actual spending plan. Those who voted against it, all Democrats, preferred that the chamber not entertain HB1 without additional revenue.

Senate Finance Chair Eric LaFleur, D-Ville Platte, said he thinks that the bill, which would cut most state agencies by about 25 percent while fully-funding health care priorities, illustrates "just how bad the problem is" for constituents.

"We have demonstrated the magnitude of the problem," he said. "We know the budget is not realistic, in a sense, because it has these cuts in it."

HB1 now heads back to the House with the Senate's proposed changes. Normally, the two chambers would then negotiate their differences to reach a final plan. It's unclear what happens now as lawmakers have a two-week special session to finalize the spending plan.

Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, issued a broad call Monday for the special session set to begin Tuesday. It must end by June 4.

Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, a New Orleans Democrat, urged the Senate to reject passing a budget bill until more revenue can be raised in the special session.

"We know it's inadequate. It's not fair to the people we serve," she said. "This is just an exercise in futility."

"Next year if you're up for re-election are you going to tell people you are proud of the budget you passed? Absolutely not," Peterson said.

Several senators who voted for the bill acknowledged its flaws.

"This is not a good budget," said Sen. Jim Fannin, a Jonesboro Republican who previously chaired the House Appropriations Committee.

But he said that it still outlined spending for some $28 billion on priorities.

House Bill 1's passage off the Senate floor was a step seen as crucial to getting to the next phase in what has become a three-year battle over state finances.

Edwards on Monday formally issued his call for a special session that will begin Tuesday with the goal of addressing a nearly $650 million "fiscal cliff" the state faces when temporary tax measures expire June 30. House Republicans wanted the Senate to demonstrate its priorities before they would agree to end the current session early to begin another revenue-focused special session.

The House passed its own version of House Bill 1 last month that included deep cuts to health care funding, prompting Gov. John Bel Edwards' administration to send letters to thousands of elderly and disabled residents warning of the threat to their services.

House Republicans blasted the move as politically calculated, and the Senate came back with its own proposal that fully funds the state Department of Health, at the expense of deep cuts to other areas of the budget. Scholarships through the popular Taylor Opportunity Program for Students would be cut by about 30 percent, and colleges would take about an 11 percent cut.

Other deep cuts outlined would ultimately shutter museums and parks, force thousands of layoffs of state workers and eliminate food stamps in Louisiana, among other drastic measures.

LaFleur said it was important to the Senate to identify life-or-death programs as "priorities" that must be funded, while demonstrating what it would mean to other state services if revenue isn't raised.

The Senate has separately adopted two resolutions outlining the areas they view as priorities heading into a special session, including extending a portion of a one-cent sales tax that will roll off the books on July 1, charging sales taxes on items that would otherwise be exempt (a process commonly referred to in the State Capitol as "cleaning pennies") and reviewing which tax credits are less lucrative to the state.

Follow Elizabeth Crisp on Twitter, @elizabethcrisp.