The Louisiana Legislature's efforts to close a $304 million midyear shortfall in the state budget have entered the final stretch after lawmakers worked through the weekend to advance a plan.
The latest version, which the Senate passed on Sunday, would rely on $99 million from the state's rainy day fund – about $24 million more from the savings account than the state House had proposed, but less than Gov. John Bel Edwards had called for.
The Senate passed its version of the deficit-closing legislation in a 29-8 vote, but a final version will likely be negotiated between the two chambers. The Senate also agreed to companion legislation that will be necessary to use any of the rainy day dollars.
The Legislature has until midnight Wednesday to hash out a final.
The Senate version would reduce some cuts that the House had proposed. It eliminates cuts to the Department of Corrections and the Department of Education. It also would largely restore funding to the Louisiana Department of Health that the House had proposed cutting.
The Louisiana House is sending to the Senate a budget proposal that would use about $74.6 mi…
"These cuts have real implications for people and families – citizens across the state," said Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, D-New Orleans.
The Senate Finance Committee met Saturday to hear from agency heads whose budgets had been slashed in the House-approved plan.
Senate Finance Chairman Eric LaFleur, D-Ville Platte, said the Senate proposal didn't follow Edwards' lead on the rainy day fund because the lesser amount represented the "political reality" of the Legislature.
"We're dealing with a lot of people with a lot of views and philosophies about the size of government," he said. "My preference would be to use the rainy day fund for what it was intended for."
The use of the rainy day fund requires a separate measure that requires approval from two-thirds of the members of the House and Senate.
The Senate Sunday evening approved that legislation in a 32-5 vote.
The House was initially scheduled to take up the legislation on Sunday night but delayed the vote until Monday.
Negotiations over the rainy day fund continued between House and Senate leaders through the evening.
Democratic leaders say they could find 40 of their members to support the Senate’s proposal. House Republicans have voiced concern about being able to muster the additional votes needed.
"I think $99 million is an acceptable amount for the body," LaFleur said.
But uncertainty remains in the lower chamber. The House narrowly defeated – in a 47-46 vote – a separate deficit-closing plan that would have used no rainy day money to balance the budget. It needed 53 votes to pass, but could be brought up again.
House Republicans and Democrats alike had viewed the vote on House Bill 8 as a potential indicator of how representatives fell on the use of the rainy day. A two-thirds majority in the 105-member House is 70 votes.
“We were expecting something like 20 votes,” said Rep. Rick Edmonds, a Baton Rouge Republican who was one of the bill's sponsors. “What this vote tells us is that there’s a great appetite in the House for zero rainy day. It says it would very difficult to reach $99 million.”
The Senate plan relies on $10 million in savings through not filling vacant positions in state government. The House had approved about $17 million in attrition savings, but legislative budget analysts testified Saturday that the real figure likely wouldn't be that high.
"We were trying to shoot for a realistic number or reasonable number," LaFleur said. "We thought that was a reasonable estimation of what would be available."
House Republicans refuted the concerns over the attrition dollars materializing as they worked Sunday on a separate bill unrelated to this year's deficit.
Rep. Tony Bacala, a Prairieville Republican who had been key in crafting the attrition plan, said that the legislative fiscal office had approved the methodology he used to come up with the higher figure.
The Louisiana Senate will meet Sunday to fine tune its plan for closing a $304 million hole …
The Senate proposal would cut payments to the state's safety net hospital partners by about 1 percent, as the governor had recommended. Edwards' administration said that it had already notified the public-private partners of the looming cut, but the House version of the spending plan didn't include that cut.
The Senate plan would take about $2 million from an escrow account held by the state attorney general's office. The governor had recommended about $4 million from that fund; the House included no money from it.
The House spent nearly two hours on a resolution concerning a complex “accounting correction” that House Speaker Taylor Barras said could raise about $96 million in the next fiscal year that begins on July 1.
It would have not impact on the current mid-year deficit, though.
Barras acknowledged that his resolution, which was approved on a vote of 80-15, could give moderates the ability to approve a higher amount from the rainy day fund.
His resolution is aimed at accessing – during the next fiscal year – millions of dollars that are locked away in funds that are dedicated by law.