A state Senate committee unraveled cuts Tuesday that the House made to health care and other public services, advancing a state operating budget that would seem to soften threats of prison closures and Medicaid program reductions.
State Sen. Mike Michot, R-Lafayette, told members of the Senate Finance Committee that an attempt was made to maintain the spirit of the House’s version of the state spending plan. “I’m not saying they’re going to agree with this plan,” he added.
House Bill 1, the $25 billion state operating budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1, now moves to the full Senate for debate, probably on Sunday evening.
A number of issues are complicating the legislative process for a budget that keeps public colleges operating, murderers behind bars and roads repaired.
The state is facing a $1.6 billion shortfall in the upcoming fiscal year, making money scarce.
Gov. Bobby Jindal wanted to balance the budget by selling prisons, reshuffling tobacco settlement dollars and shrinking state workers’ pay.
The House rejected many of the governor’s budget balancing ideas, arguing they would rely too much on one-time money to pay expenses that must be met year after year.
House leaders complained of relying on money that does not annually flow to the state. The House passed a rule that limits use of “one time” money in the budget.
To get around that rule, the Senate Finance Committee tried to match one-time money to one-time expenses. The shuffling would include using $55 million in leftover hurricane recovery funds.
The Senate panel did not use Jindal’s ideas that some legislators call “contingencies,” such as the future sale of prisons or an October election to amend the constitution to reshuffle tobacco settlement dollars.
Instead, the panel used one-time dollars, making an attempt not to use them for recurring expenses in an attempt to appease the House.
The biggest change the Senate Committee on Finance made was to reverse more than $200 million in cuts that the House made across state government. State agency leaders had predicted those cuts would close prisons and devastate health care.
Michot said committee members listened to what the agency leaders said during hours of testimony on the budget bill. “We take that testimony seriously,” he said.
Displeased with the House’s changes to the budget he proposed, the governor had vowed to work with the Senate on the legislation.
Jindal’s spokesman, Kyle Plotkin, wrote in a text message Wednesday night that while the administration continues to review the Senate committee‘s amendments, “as it currently stands, the budget would allow the prisons to continue to be operated.”
Back in the budget with the Senate committee’s amendments is $81 million that sparked a dispute between the House and the state Department of Health and Hospitals.
House leaders contend the reduction would only delay implementation of the new way the Jindal administration wants to handle the Medicaid program that provides health care to the poor.
The administration countered that the cut would lower payments to the health-care professionals who treat those patients.
“These amendments represent our attempt not to cut vital services,” said state Sen. Lydia Jackson, D-Shreveport and vice chairwoman of the committee.
The panel met at 7 a.m. to consider the amendments. The early start was a reflection of the narrowing window on the remainder of the legislative session. Legislators must complete their work by 6 p.m. on June 23.
The House and the Senate now have eight days to agree on a final state spending plan.
“Not everyone is going to be totally happy,” Michot predicted of the version his committee crafted.
House lawmakers’ take on the Senate committee’s changes will be revealed once the bill returns to that chamber next week for concurrence.
A conservative faction in the House wants state government to live in its means rather than use one-time money — such as the proceeds of prison sales — to pay recurring expenses.
As HB1 stands now:
State agencies would receive extra money for an added pay period that is cropping up because of the way the calendar falls. The House removed those funds and told agencies to bear the costs.
The Senate Finance Committee restored funding for travel, operating expenses and other costs that the House reduced. After the House trimmed that funding, state agency leaders warned of prison closures and other dire consequences. House leaders accused the officials of exaggerating.
Food banks across the state would receive $500,000 to replenish their pantries during an economic recession.
$22 million would be spent on judgments against the state, including $4 million toward paying a more than $300 million judgment stemming from a 1983 flood in Tangipahoa Parish.
The Senate committee, like legislators in the House, did not add projects for legislators’ districts. The so-called pet projects usually make it into the state budget every year, but the shortfall is curtailing that spending.