secondday0070.022118 bf

At the table, administration commissioner Jay Dardenne, right, and asst. administration commissioner Randy Davis, second from right, answer questions in the House Appropriations committee on HB29 which would establish the Louisiana Checkbook website to provide transparency of state fiscal information as the legislature convenes in special session to fix the budget deficit Tuesday Feb. 20, 2018, in Baton Rouge, La.

The direction of the state's spending priorities for the coming year is about to come into sharper focus as the State House gears up to pass a budget bill out of the chamber this week.

But it's still unclear whether lawmakers will ultimately rally around a plan to end the regular session ahead of schedule next month to hold yet another special session to try to shore up the state's shaky finances.

The House Appropriations Committee is scheduled to take up its spending plan on Monday – the first unveiling of the deep cuts that House Republican leaders say they believe they can make to solve the looming fiscal cliff. Thursday has been set aside as the day the budget will hit the House floor, where even more budget maneuvering is likely to take place.

From there, House Bill 1 heads to the Senate for vetting, where lawmakers have already been working weekends to begin hearings on state agency budgets.

Senate Finance Chair Eric LaFleur, D-Ville Platte, said he is trying to move at the pace that Gov. John Bel Edwards has sought, so the Legislature can end the regular session early and convene another special session without additional costs.

"Obviously we don't have a budget bill yet," LaFleur said during Sunday's hearing, which focused on the Edwards administration, the Inspector General's Office and other state agencies.

State lawmakers got a bit of good news last week, when the state's revenue estimating panel recognized about a $346 million boost in revenue the state is expected to collect in the coming budget cycle. That lowered the fiscal cliff the state faces when temporary tax measures expire June 30 to about a $648 million.

Edwards, a Democrat, wants lawmakers to end the regular session early to begin another special session, after one earlier this year ended with no action on legislation meant to bridge the gap. Edwards has said if lawmakers can end the regular session in mid-May, rather than its June 4 scheduled end, then a special session can run without as much additional costs to taxpayers.

Another special session would be the state's sixth since February 2016.

So far, the Republican-controlled House hasn't committed to an early end, nor the need for another special session.

House Speaker Taylor Barras, R-New Iberia, said he believes that the chamber can pass a balanced budget this week that would rely on cuts to make up the difference.

"We'll see what the Senate does from there," he said.

The House Appropriations Committee has spent the past several weeks holding its own hearings on the budget, taking deep dives into spending at the state Department of Health during hearings that stretched several hours over two days last week.

House budget writers also heard from Louisiana residents during the annual public testimony hearing, during which families with medically fragile children and others who rely on the state's safety net health care programs discussed the services on which they rely, and college students begged lawmakers not to cut universities and the popular Taylor Opportunity Program for Students scholarships that thousands of students in Louisiana receive to attend college in the state.

"Let's foster a new era of reinvestment in higher education," said Arthur Williams, a student at Southern University Law Center who implored the panel to fully fund higher education and TOPS. "We believe it's critically important especially considering the times we are in now."

Families, many of them dressed in bright yellow shirts, packed the hearing to detail the health care services they rely on for their children with severe and costly needs that are met through waiver programs that could face cuts, despite already long waiting lists.

Nina Savoie, of Ascension Parish, testified that her son John Harris, 5, died last fall without receiving aid from state programs for children with serious medical issues.

He had a trach and a feeding tube, and although his case was screened and deemed among the most urgent, the wait list was longer than his life.

"It doesn't have to be like this and we are not the only family on a waiting list with a terminal diagnosis," Savoie said, clutching a photo of her son during the hearing. "I can't help but wonder what could have been if we had gotten a waiver."

Follow Elizabeth Crisp on Twitter, @elizabethcrisp.