Gov. John Bel Edwards’ administration wants Senate budget leaders to scrap the state budget proposal the House spent weeks working on and start over on the budget that takes effect July 1.
“We have a wholly unacceptable budget,” Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne told the Senate Finance Committee during a briefing Thursday.
The Louisiana Legislature has until June 6 to pass a balanced budget and is trying to work through an estimated $600 million funding shortfall. The Senate Finance Committee now is sorting out what the House version would mean for state services.
Dardenne asked the Senate panel to go back to the drawing board, starting with the version Edwards presented as his own plan, and strip the House changes “in their entirety.”
“We have a difficult challenge on our hands — we know that,” Dardenne said. “We appreciate the work the House has done, but we think there are some changes that need to be made.”
Edwards wants to call a special session after the regular session ends next month, so legislators can raise additional revenue to cover the budget gap. Lawmakers are barred from tax hikes and other revenue-raising measures during the current session.
The House passed its version of the nearly $26 billion budget proposal May 13, after nearly 14 hours of floor debate on the state’s spending priorities. That came after weeks of hearings in the House Appropriations Committee.
The House version of the budget bill relied on $100 million that committee leaders said could be siphoned from fees and statutory dedications that pass through a state debt fund.
Dardenne said Thursday that such a scheme has been used only once before and was abandoned “after a few months” because it caused too many problems.
“We think it’s unworkable, unconstitutional, ill advised and certainly needs to be eliminated,” he told the Senate panel.
The removal of that provision would eliminate much of the money the House put toward funding the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students, which means about two-thirds of those scholarships would go unfunded in the coming year, unless lawmakers agree to raise revenue.
The popular TOPS scholarships have been viewed as a major bargaining chip in getting on board legislators who have been resistant to raising more revenue in a special session.
Lawmakers already raised about $1.2 billion in a special session earlier this year.
Sherry Phillips-Hymel, the Senate’s chief fiscal analyst, said it wasn’t enough to close the gap.
“The budget is still $600 million short to fulfill and continue to do what the state is doing in current services,” she said.
Already, several senators are acknowledging the need to raise more money for the state’s coffers.
Sen. Ronnie Johns, R-Lake Charles, said he doesn’t think it should wait until fall.
“I’m advocating for the special session,” he said.
Sen. Bret Allain, R-Franklin, said he’s not sure the Legislature will raise the full $600 million needed to bridge the gap. He asked the administration for a list of priorities if the shortfall is only partially funded.
“These are draconian cuts in a lot of places,” Allain said. “It would help us to know what your intentions are.”
Currently, the most vulnerable areas of the budget are higher education and health care, Dardenne said.
He said it would threaten waiver programs for the developmentally disabled and partnerships that run the state’s safety net hospitals. Additionally, colleges and universities would see deep cuts to their budgets, and thousands of students would lose TOPS scholarships or see them reduced.
“It’s very unfortunate that we’re having to have this conversation where we are pitting health care against higher education,” said Sen. Regina Barrow, D-Baton Rouge. “It makes me very sad that we are having this discussion today.”
“These are all difficult, difficult decisions for all of us,” Allain said.
The Senate committee is expected to continue its work Friday before breaking for the Memorial Day holiday.