The Louisiana House has agreed to add about $284 million back into the budget that begins July 1 thanks to money that’s expected to be raised from new tax legislation that lawmakers have approved in recent weeks.
The plan now heads to the Senate for vetting as the clock winds down on the second special session, in which the Legislature has been tasked with bridging an originally $2 billion shortfall in the coming year. The latest version of the budget still comes up about $300 million shy of what Gov. John Bel Edwards’ administration said would prevent cuts to state services.
After a nearly two-hour debate over priorities and whether the state should direct more money toward the popular Taylor Opportunity Program for Students or to the safety net hospitals for the poor, the House agreed Monday to a plan that funds TOPS at about 70 percent and provides the funds the state Department of Health says is needed to protect the public-private hospital partnership contracts.
“We’ve worked diligently to get everyone as close to what they say they need,” said House Appropriations Chairman Cameron Henry, R-Metairie.
The Legislature ended its regular session on June 6 with the estimated $600 million gap in funding for state agencies. Lawmakers can’t consider revenue-raising bills during regular sessions in even-numbered years, so Edwards called the special session to give legislators a chance to raise taxes and bring in more money. The special session must end by midnight Thursday, and Edwards said he doesn’t expect to call a third session.
The House passed two measures Monday that would raise an estimated $70 million in the coming year by trimming business tax breaks. The Legislature had already approved measures that would produce an additional $214 million.
“It’s better than where we were,” Senate President John Alario, R-Westwego, said in an interview. “But we’re still short.”
Alario said he hasn’t given up hope on amending bills before the Senate to raise more money.
“But we can’t do it by ourselves,” Alario said, meaning the tax-resistant House would have to go along with any moves by the Senate.
The House kicked off its work Monday on a supplemental budget bill to back-fill what’s been raised so far and appeared to signal that it’s unlikely to bridge the entire $600 million gap by Thursday’s end of the special session.
Several legislators repeated frustrations that have been aired over the past 18 weeks as lawmakers have debated the best way to spend the state’s money.
“We’ve sat here for the past two months and it feels like the only punching bag is TOPS,” said Rep. Tony Bacala, R-Prairieville. “Whenever someone wants a few dollars, they grab it.”
House Bill 69, which carries the spending plan for the additional dollars as well as a list of priorities for any additional funding that may come in, passed the House in a 75-25 vote.
“You want to give the administration some direction of where to spend the money if it comes in,” Henry said of the attached priority list.
The latest spending proposal will provide additional funding for the state’s K-12 voucher program that allows low-income students in poorly-rated public school districts to attend private schools. A gap of nearly $2.5 million remains.
The House also agreed to direct some money away from TOPS to boost funding for colleges and universities and medical education programs.
“All of us support the TOPS program, but it’s never been reduced,” said Rep. Walt Leger III, D-New Orleans. “It’s always been fully funded.”
Under legislation that passed earlier this year, TOPS cuts would be proportionately spread over all scholarship recipients. That means that at the 70 percent funding level, all awards would be reduced to 70 percent of their normal value.
Traditionally, TOPS has covered tuition for Louisiana residents who meet certain academic benchmarks and attend college in the state.
Meanwhile, the state’s safety net hospitals will receive funding that the Department of Health says is needed to ensure that services are not reduced. The providers have said they need more funding, but state leaders are renegotiating the contracts that they operate under and believe that costs to the state could be reduced.
“I doubt (LDH) knows how much money they need,” said Rep. Barry Ivey, R-Baton Rouge. “There’s so much bureaucracy involved.”
Rep. Barbara Norton, D-Shreveport, and others argued that they worried that cuts to the state health department would have a disproportionate impact on the poor.
“There is a lot of people on TOPS who can afford to go if they don’t get TOPS,” Norton said.
But others argued that cuts to TOPS will affect constituents who have come to rely on the scholarship program.
“The people who are paying taxes, they say ‘Please keep TOPS for us,’ ” Bacala said. “We’ve whittled this stick too far.”
Will Sentell and Tyler Bridges, of The Advocate Capitol news bureau, contributed to this report. Follow Elizabeth Crisp on Twitter, @elizabeth crisp.
For more coverage of Louisiana state government and politics, follow our Politics blog at http://blogs.the advocate.com/politicsblog.