The Louisiana Legislature has five days to reach a compromise on the state’s nearly $26 billion budget for the coming year — if it plans to hash out a spending plan before heading into a second special session on the state’s financial issues.
The Louisiana Senate on Wednesday quickly passed its version of the budget that would go into effect July 1, but the chamber’s leaders say the proposal remains several hundred million dollars shy of meeting the state’s priorities.
“We came into the session with the inability to raise any revenue, so the only thing we’re able to do is decide how to impose $600 million in cuts,” said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Eric LaFleur, D-Ville Platte.
Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat who took office in January, has ordered a special session that will begin 30 minutes after the regular session ends to try to bridge the funding gap.
Legislators already raised $1.2 billion in revenue during an earlier special session this year, relying heavily on increases in the state sales tax.
The Senate approved in about an hour a budget plan that is drastically different from the version that the House spent 14 hours on passing last month.
Leaders from both chambers will try to reach a compromise in the final five days of the session before seeing what adjustments can be made if money is raised in the special session. Several have acknowledged that even as the clock is winding down, legislators don’t have to pass a final budget and could hold off until the special session.
During a meeting with The Advocate editorial board this week, Edwards noted that the differences between the House and Senate budgets are “substantial,” and legislators may not have the appetite to reach a final budget by Monday.
“Can they wait? Yeah,” he said. “Should they wait? No.”
LaFleur said the budget proposal that passed Wednesday wasn’t what Senate leaders want, but it’s the best they could do in a time of shortfall.
“In every budget process it’s about prioritizing what we do,” he said. “That’s all we can do.”
He and other budget leaders in support of the second special session say they think the Legislature needs to come up with an additional $300 million to $400 million in the special session to fully fund priorities like the popular Taylor Opportunity Program for Students, which pays college tuition for qualified students, and safety net hospital services for the poor and prevent deeper cuts for colleges and universities.
LaFleur repeatedly told senators that areas of the budget that face cuts can regain funding if money is raised during the special session.
“Those are things we will address in the special session,” LaFleur said.
The Senate version of the budget funds TOPS scholarships at about 48 percent — meaning half of the estimated $300 million that TOPS needs would go unfunded.
Cuts to the program would be spread over individual students’ awards, under legislation lawmakers approved earlier this week.
LaFleur said TOPS would get one-third of any money raised during the special session.
The budget also does not fully fund contracts for the safety net hospital system, and cuts to the Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism would force some state parks to be shuttered.
The budget did spare waiver programs for the elderly and disabled.
LaFleur described for legislators the problems with shifting funding in a tight budget.
“If you take it from one person you have to give it to another,” he said.
The Senate budget proposal passed the chamber in a 37-2 vote, after little discussion.
The two votes against the bill were Sen. Beth Mizell, R-Franklinton, and Sen. Neil Riser, R-Columbia.
Mizell said she worried about the cut to hospitals.
“There has to be some consideration for the people of our state who depend on those hospitals,” she said.