budgetday0260.042018 bf

Reflected in the tote board behind him, House Speaker Rep. Taylor Barras, R-New Iberia, announces the vote on HB1, the state budget bill, Thursday April 19, 2018, in Baton Rouge, La. The budget bill passed 55-47.

ADVOCATE STAFF PHOTO BY BILL FEIG

They looked like handicappers at an off-track betting parlor, albeit better dressed.

A couple of college system presidents, a couple of agency heads, and a handful of lobbyists — a few tourists watched from the periphery — gathered under a massive television monitor hanging in the Art Deco lobby of the Louisiana House Chamber.

Democratic Caucus Chair Robert Johnson, his grandmother’s rosary in his pocket, was on the screen making an emotional plea to reject a state spending plan that deeply cuts services for the poor and disabled, chops TOPS and nearly defunds safety-net hospitals.

It was the denouement of an effort by House leadership, which has repeatedly failed to find a majority among the cliques of Republicans on fiscal measures, to pass a state budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1.

But nobody seemed to want to vote for a bill with so many cuts. State Rep. Stuart Bishop, of Lafayette, wandered through the lobby and jokingly asked former state Rep. Chris Broadwater, also a Republican, to vote in his stead — laughter all around.

What really mattered was the count — in this case 53 “yea” votes out of 105 members. (Seventy votes are needed to pass a tax or fee increase.) Passing a state budget with deep cuts to cover about $650 million in lost revenues when some taxes expire on June 30 was going to be a close-run thing. Forty-one Democrats were no votes, and up to a dozen of the 61 Republicans were wavering as were two of the three without party affiliation.

The handicappers traded intelligence about how House Majority Leader Lance Harris worked on possible GOP defectors, often relying on a rep’s business constituents to phone their legislators.

Estimates in the lobby ran from 54 to 58 “yea” votes.

Harris had amended the bill to take about 20 percent of the money from the popular TOPS grant, which helps pay college tuition, and shift part of it to the hospitals. Not much, but enough perhaps sway a couple of rural representatives to support the bill.

Bogalusa state Rep. Malinda White would have none of it. The $3.4 million Harris designated for the Franciscan Missionaries contracted to run her area’s acute care hospital, she said, was a mere drop in a $34.9 million bucket needed for the emergency room in rural Washington Parish, where the next closest facility was a 30-minute drive over winding roads to Picayune, Mississippi.

“You can give it to somebody else,” White said. Harris shrugged.

Both Harris and Appropriations Chair Cameron Henry said the state didn’t have enough money to fund promised services. Both said they would back “revenue-raising measures,” i.e. taxes, in a special session expected to be called in mid-May.

But this exercise was part of a process to give lawmakers a much firmer grasp on how much would be needed, both Henry and Harris insisted.

The size of the fiscal cliff has shrunk since the first special session. "The number is getting smaller and smaller," Henry said.

“This is what a responsible budget looks like — dealing with the actual figures, the actual money that's available to the state today,” Harris said after the vote. “While not perfect — there is still a lot of work to do — we passed a budget, and it’s on its way to the Senate to finish work on the budget using the funds that we have today.”

What happens in the state Senate is still up in the air. Senators could rearrange the funding and cut different programs. Or they could stall and wait for a special session.

“What we saw today out of the House is proof of what we've been saying all along: There simply isn't enough revenue,” Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards said after the vote.

Back in the lobby, Jack Montoucet, head of the state Wildlife and Fisheries agency, tried to divine clues from the state budget vote that could apply to his effort to streamline hunting and fishing licenses and raise the fees on some of them. He needs the money to help meet federal matching dollars for conservation efforts.

House Bill 687 comes up for a vote on Monday, and Montoucet doesn’t know if he has the 70 votes necessary to advance a fee hike measure to the Senate.

He lowered the fee increase request from $5 to $2 in hopes of attracting a few more votes. Was it enough? “We’ll see,” he shrugged.

On the budget bill, the 61-member GOP House caucus absorbed seven Republican defections. All but one Democrat voted against House Bill 1, which passed 55-47.

Among the handicappers, only veteran lobbyist Tommy Williams had the right number of “yea’ votes.

Follow Mark Ballard on Twitter, @MarkBallardCnb.