State leaders painted a bleak picture Tuesday of the decisions agencies would be forced to face under a budget plan that the House will take up later this week.
- 120 in-patient beds for psychiatric patients would be eliminated.
- The state would drop its efforts to combat the potentially deadly Zika virus.
- Hundreds of non-violent inmates could be released on an otherwise unadvised furlough system.
- Two cemeteries for veterans would be shuttered.
"The bill awaiting action on the House floor is a non-starter for a variety of reasons," said Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne, flanked by leaders of the state's health, social services, corrections and veterans affairs agencies.
One-by-one the department heads detailed how services will be impacted by the budget proposal that the House Appropriations Committee approved on Monday. The final version of the budget will evolve as it moves through the legislative process. The Senate will get its first crack at it next week.
Ultimately, the two chambers will work out an agreement, likely on or near the session's end on June 8.
But House Bill 1, as approved by the House budget-writing committee in a party-line vote with Republicans in favor, would fully fund the popular Taylor Opportunity Program for Students and prevent additional cuts to higher education. It also protects some optional medical services for medically fragile children.
To fund TOPS and other priorities, it would carve out $235 million from the Louisiana Department of Health budget, and legislators added extra restrictions on what the department can cut. Cuts to the state's public-private safety net hospital contracts would have to be distributed equally, for example.
On a party line vote, with Republicans in the majority overriding Democrats and calling for …
Most of the money in the state Health Department comes with a corresponding federal match, so LDH Secretary Dr. Rebekah Gee said the real impact to the agency's budget would be closer to $750 million.
"Because of the gruesomeness of these numbers ... you have to cut real programs," Gee said. "There is no fluff that adds up to that number."
House leaders have said that they disagree that the department, which makes up nearly can't scale back spending.
House Appropriations Chairman Cameron Henry, R-Metairie, said during a meeting with The Advocate editorial board this week he feels comfortable with cutting LDH's funding because the agency has absorbed past mid-year cuts, including earlier this year.
"Everyone's going to start with a little less," he said.
Henry and House Speaker Taylor Barras, R-New Iberia, have led the charge for a budget that spends only 97.5 percent of the money that the state's economists have forecast to be available in the coming year. They argue that will lessen the likelihood that the state faces a mid-year deficit. House Appropriations members also repeatedly expressed a desire to rein in state spending.
"We're spending more money than we have," said House GOP Caucus Chair Lance Harris, of Alexandria.
Dardenne, who serves as Gov. John Bel Edwards' chief budget architect, said the administration disagrees with the plan to leave nearly $240 million unspent while cutting other services. Edwards' own budget plan identified some $440 million in additional items to fund, if lawmakers raise revenue through several proposed tax measures this session.
"He said we didn't like the way (the governor's budget) looked," Dardenne said.
On top of the cuts to LDH, the committee-approved budget proposal would effectively cut the Department of Corrections by about $32 million, Secretary Jimmy Leblanc said.
He said that would force the state's prisons to begin furloughing some inmates and employees to make up the savings.
At the same time, he warned, some employees would be forced to work overtime hours.
"When you start cutting in a department like corrections, you lose money," he said.
Louisiana Division of Children and Family Services Secretary Marketa Walters said that her agency, which oversees 8,000 children in foster care each year and more than 900,000 food stamp recipients, faces a $19 million hit that becomes $70 million when federal match dollars are counted.
"We can't afford to run the programs when we keep reducing the staff," she said.
She said social workers who transport children to family visits, doctors appointments and other needed services are driving old cars that have logged more than 170,000 miles.
On top of that, she said that the budget would eliminate 67 positions in child welfare office, which handles child abuse and neglect cases.
"These cuts are draconian and nonsensical," Walters said. "The lack of compassion in this budget is appalling."
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