Budget bill debate 050417

House Appropriations Chairman Cameron Henry, R-Metairie, right, and Rep. Blake Miguez, R-Erath, during debate about amendments to the state’s operating budget bill on Thursday, May 4, 2017.

Advocate photo by Mark Ballard

Maybe this whole budgeting process would be easier if everyone wore gloves. That way, we wouldn't be spending so much time talking about whose fingerprints will wind up on the state budget.

The battle in the House, basically between the Republicans who hold a majority overall (and an overwhelming one on the key Appropriations Committee) and the Democratic governor and his allies, has devolved largely into a finger-pointing festival.

On a mostly party line vote, the House passed its version of the budget last week. It's a more austere document than Gov. John Bel Edwards had proposed, yet one that fully funds the popular TOPS scholarship program that benefits middling as well as strong students, those who need the help as well as those whose families can easily afford to contribute toward their state tuition.

The return to full funding, after the program was shorted by about 30 percent this year, is a goal of both sides. The rub is that Edwards proposed doing it with new tax revenue that he says is badly needed, but that Republicans are fiercely resisting. So look for them to claim credit for having stood up for TOPS families, even if money runs short and students are once again asked to chip in for tuition with little notice.

Faring far more poorly in the House-passed, $29 billion "standstill" spending plan are health care and a few other areas, which saw cuts of about $235 million from the governor's proposal. And complicating the situation is a related battle over who might get the blame for specific cuts in services.

Edwards called the House approach "draconian," "gruesome" even, listed likely service losses and and pointed out that it would result in lost federal matching funds. And one of his chief allies, Democratic House Speaker Pro Tem Walt Leger III of New Orleans blasted his GOP counterparts for putting the onus of actually making the cuts happen on the administration.

"It's a transparent attempt to cut the budget deeply and hide those facts by telling the Division of Administration do to the dirty work," Leger said.

Republican leaders insist the administration has cried wolf in the past, and always managed to find a way to absorb cuts without catastrophic results.

"Everyone's going to start with a little less," Appropriations Chair Cameron Henry, R-Metairie, said after the initial proposal was approved by his committee early next week.

The House vote is not the final word, of course, and nor is the governor's insistence that House Bill 1 in its current form is a nonstarter. The Senate gets it next, and while the chamber is also majority Republican, it's generally less confrontational and more sympathetic to Edwards' priorities.

Beyond the budget bill, there are also systemic changes lawmakers could make, maybe too late to settle this year's brawl but in time to avert similar ones in the future.

One is to rethink TOPS, to raise academic standards, introduce a need-based element to the formula or find another way to keep the cost from growing as rapidly as it has. Lawmakers have proposed various ideas this year, as they have in the past, but so far they haven't risen to the top of the Legislature's agenda.

Another is to finally tackle all the statutory and constitutional dedications that protect most budget lines other than health care and higher education. That way advocates for the two fields would no longer be pitted against one another, a dynamic that's getting really old.

A third is to confront the obvious need for budgetary reform, to make Louisiana's revenue stream more stable and predictable and avert all these emergency showdowns that keep happening.

Or maybe enough Republican lawmakers might come around to the governor's way of thinking and decide more taxes are needed to keep the lights on after all.

If none of those broader moves materialize, then look for more of the same, not just for the rest of this year but for the remainder of Edwards' term.

So maybe lawmakers and administration officials should invest in those gloves anyway, because nobody is likely to want his or her fingerprints on the results.

Follow Stephanie Grace on Twitter, @stephgracela.