Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget on Dec. 15, 2016

Advocate Photo by MARK BALLARD – State Sen. Jack Donahue, R-Mandeville, questions Thursday the state’s spending practices during a meeting of the Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget. Seated beside him is Sen. Sharon Hewitt, R- Slidell. Behind left is Senate Finance Chairman Eric LaFleur, D-Ville Platte, and Senate President John Alario, R-Westwego, behind right.

Mark Ballard

The Senate Finance Committee expects to reveal its version of the state budget on Memorial Day, giving the first glimpse of how far apart the upper chamber is from the spending plan passed by the House.

For now, the Senate budget-writing panel is hearing from stakeholders about the impact of cuts to their budgets in the fiscal cycle that starts July 1.

The state budget totals about $29 billion, including federal funding that is largely out of legislators' control, but the biggest hang-ups involve the shifting of just few hundred million dollars.

Senate Finance Chair Eric LaFleur, D-Ville Platte, said the Senate is trying to figure out the best way to spend the state's resources, after the House passed its version of the budget with few hearings this session.

"At the end of the day, do you want what's best for your public? If the public keeps telling us they don't, we'll give them average, and that's what they are getting today," LaFleur said.

The House passed its version of the budget on May 4. It opted to fully fund the popular Taylor Opportunity Program for Students, TOPS, that had been slashed this year. The House didn't fund the Louisiana Department of Health to the level the department's leaders say it needs to continue current services.

The two sides must agree on a state spending plan by June 8, the end of the regular session. Usually, a deal is hashed out on the final day of the session, with most of the negotiations taking place behind the scenes.

Senate leaders have indicated they also are inclined to fully fund TOPS this year, as the House plan would, but they are still working out where the cuts will fall.

Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, has called the House version of the budget a "nonstarter."

"It is a terribly irresponsible document," Edwards said Wednesday. "It lacks courage."

To fund TOPS, the House-backed plan would give the Department of Health about $436 million less than it requested. Department leaders have said that will lead to deep cuts in mental health services and the state's response to the mosquito-carried Zika virus.

Over the past several days, the Finance Committee has heard from various agency heads about their budget needs and what the state could lose through cuts.

One by one, most asked that their budgets not be cut, but it's unclear how the state would be able to stave off any cuts without an increase in revenue, and the House tax committee has been cool to major revenue-generators this session.

One of the recurring themes: State agency heads are bothered by the high turnover rates in their departments, as state employees have in many cases gone years without pay raises and have taken on increased work when positions have gone unfilled.

"My gosh, I've lost some good people," Inspector General Stephen Street said.

Street said he has been hiring people who have retired and can take lower salaries, but that contributes to less institutional knowledge when they leave. "We've lost some quality people," he said.

During his monthly call-in radio show Wednesday, Edwards said that the Legislature, which has less than three weeks left until the regular session must end on June 8, is running out of time to address future budget concerns beyond this year. "Every day it looks more and more likely that we'll have to have a special session," he said.

Legislation meant to address the looming $1 billion "fiscal cliff" the state faces when a temporary sales tax hike ends in July 2018 has failed to gain traction this session.

Edwards, a Democrat, put forth a series of revenue-generating proposals before the session started, but none has gone anywhere. The GOP-controlled House hasn't passed any major tax legislation this session.

"Quite frankly, I'm disappointed in how behind the Legislature is, particularly in the House," Edwards told his radio listeners.

The House opted to set aside 2.5 percent of the revenue that is projected to be available in the coming year to provide a "cushion" for any potential shortfall. Louisiana has experienced 15 mid-year deficits in the past nine years.

On Tuesday, the Revenue Estimating Conference, which sets the budget limit for the Legislature, met and agreed on a modest decrease in the nearly $9.4 billion in state revenue that will be available to spend.

"We've never done that before," LaFleur said of the House's move.

He said he understands the thinking behind it, but the state has grappled with repeated cuts that have reduced the ability to raise state workers' pay and led to dips in funding for programs.

"It's prudent to save some of the money, there's no doubt about it ... It just doesn't make sense to underfund those programs," he said.

"That's one of the things we'll have to work through on the Senate side," LaFleur added.

Follow Elizabeth Crisp on Twitter, @elizabethcrisp.