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Rep. Cameron Henry, R-Metairie, second from right, talks with a group of legislators on the House floor while working on HB-3 before the end of the Legislature's Special Session Wednesday. The bill was adopted.

Advocate Staff Photo by PATRICK DENNIS

A state House panel, in a party-line vote, has advanced a budget plan for the coming year that would fully-fund the popular Taylor Opportunity Program for Students at the expense of the state Department of Health and ban employee pay raises.

Republicans in the chamber praised the proposal, which is about $630 million below Gov. John Bel Edwards' priority budget proposal, as an effort to rein in state spending.

Democrats blasted it as cutting funding without regard to what those cuts could mean.

Monday's hearing offered the first look at the House GOP's spending proposal for the budget that begins July 1.

For nearly four hours, members of the House Appropriations Committee debated the state's priorities and worked to carve out spending protections for them.

House Bill 1 now heads to the full House, where it will likely be altered, for consideration on Thursday. The state Senate will then get its shot at making further changes.

Lawmakers must agree to a final version of the state spending plan by the end of the legislative session on June 8.

House Speaker Taylor Barras said in a meeting with The Advocate editorial board on Monday that the House GOP's goal is to slow the state budget growth. "Otherwise, we're going to be battling to find new pots of revenue every 12 months," he said.

The Appropriations Committee, chaired by Rep. Cameron Henry, R-Metairie, has set out to only allocate 97.5 percent of the money available in the coming year in hopes that it would reduce the likelihood that the state has a mid-year budget shortfall. The state has experienced at least 15 deficits in nine years.

The House's budget plan would fund the Louisiana Department of Health about $235 million below what the agency had sought. It directs that the funds cannot come from optional waiver programs for medically fragile children, but doesn't direct where they should be made. Rather, it directs the administration to first look at vacant positions.

Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne said that the Legislature should identify programs that should be eliminated. "Tell us where you don't want to spend dollars and money won't be spent there," he said.

But Henry said that lawmakers are in a no-win situation: Dictate cuts and they are accused of micromanaging. Don't dictate and they are accused of punting.

"There is no way to win here, from the perspective of members," he said. "We've picked this one for now."

Henry said he feels comfortable with cutting LDH's funding because the agency has absorbed past mid-year cuts.

"Everyone's going to start with a little less," he said.

The overall impact on LDH could be significantly higher, since state funding to the agency tends to be linked to federal matching dollars.

Henry said that House leaders are still sorting through various areas of the department's spending. For example, he said he wants more evidence that shows whether the state's saving money through the public-private partnerships for the state's safety-net hospitals. He said he also wants to know how many checking accounts the state has but he has been unable to get the information.

"We don't have access to all the information we would like to have," Henry said.

Barras said that the House has absorbed its own retirement and other growing costs while cutting spending.

"I think that is manageable for most departments," he said.

House Democratic Caucus Chairman Gene Reynolds, of Minden, slammed the Republican-crafted spending plan, arguing that it should better define where cuts are to be made. He compared the proposal to the budgeting practices under Republican Bobby Jindal's administration, which have frequently been criticized by Republicans and Democrats.

“It’s like a firing squad," Reynolds said. "They want to kill vital services to their own people, but blame someone else for firing the gun. It’s irresponsible, dishonest budgeting – a throwback to the Jindal era, only this is Jindal on steroids.”

House Speaker Pro Tempore Walt Leger, D-New Orleans, said he worried that the funding level didn't account for rising costs that agencies face. "That amounts to a cut in my view," he said.

Edwards has called on the Legislature to look for ways to generate revenue and lower the sales tax when temporary increase drops next July.

The House tax committee will be vetting the revenue bills in the coming week, Barras said, but he stressed that the aim may be less about generating revenue and more on policy.

"I think there will be a number of them that get lengthy discussion," he said.

Most tax legislation requires support from two-thirds of the members of the chamber.

"Those are extremely difficult votes to come by," Barras said.

The budget proposal that made it out of committee Monday doesn't take into account any possible funds that may come as the result of tax measures.

"Any type of contingency funding is the old way to do things," Henry said.


VOTING IN SUPPORT: Chairman Cameron Henry, R-Metairie; and Reps. Mark Abraham, R-Lake Charles; Beryl Amedee, R-Gray; Tony Bacala, R-Prairieville; Larry Bagley, R-Stonewall; Johnny Berthelot, R-Gonzales; Charles "Bubba" Chaney, R-Rayville; Rick Edmonds, R-Baton Rouge; Franklin Foil, R-Baton Rouge; Lance Harris, R-Alexandria; Bob Hensgens, R-Abbeville; Jack McFarland, R-Winnfield; Blake Miguez, R-Erath; Steve Pylant, R-Winnsboro; John Schroder, R-Covington; Scott Simon, R-Abita Springs; and Jerome "Zee" Zeringue, R-Houma.

VOTING AGAINST: Reps. James Armes, D-Leesville; Robert Billiot, D-Westwego; Gary Carter, D-New Orleans; Walt Leger, D-New Orleans; and Patricia Smith, D-Baton Rouge.

Follow Elizabeth Crisp on Twitter, @elizabethcrisp.