Senate finance leaders on Monday reprioritized items in the latest version of the state budget to put money back toward services for programs that benefit the elderly and disabled — largely at the expense of safety net hospitals and the popular Taylor Opportunity Program for Students.
Lawmakers likely are still weeks away from finalizing a state spending plan that will take effect July 1, even as the state Legislature enters the final week of its regular session.
Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat who took office Jan. 11, has ordered lawmakers to enter a special session shortly after the regular session ends June 6, with the goal of finding additional revenue to plug an estimated $600 million shortfall in the coming year.
Lawmakers already raised about $1.2 billion in a special session earlier this year, but legislative fiscal analysts and the Edwards administration say the state’s still $600 million short of keeping the same level of services currently offered.
“The whole legislative process is about setting priorities,” said Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne. “It’s clearly an ongoing work in progress.”
Dardenne said he thinks the Senate panel’s retooling is “absolutely” better than the House version, though.
“Obviously, there are a lot of critical needs that still have to be met,” he said. “I hope and expect that the Legislature will respond appropriately during the special session.”
After meeting on Memorial Day, the Senate Finance Committee advanced its version of the budget Monday that deviates from the plan that passed the House earlier this month.
It puts $60 million into funding programs that help cover health care services for medically fragile children and services for the elderly and disabled.
Sherry Phillips-Hymel, the chief fiscal analyst for the Senate, said virtually no department survived without a cut in the latest version of the budget.
“There’s clearly no additional money,” Hymel said. “This is moving money around in certain areas.”
Senate Finance Chair Eric LaFleur, D-Ville Platte, said that under the latest deal that has been struck over the state budget, a third of the money raised during the upcoming special session will go to fund TOPS.
TOPS has been a major sticking point as lawmakers have fought over priorities for the regular session versus what could be put off until later.
Sen. Wesley Bishop, D-New Orleans, said he still worries that the special session will only reap enough money to fund TOPS, while leaving other services unfunded.
“The budget still falls woefully short,” he said. “It seems like every single year we are going down this same path.”
The full Senate will vet the proposal with the potential for further changes before the session ends. A final version typically is hashed out in the final days among leaders from both chambers, but the budget has to be balanced so the special session will determine the final gap, as well as the ultimate hit to each agency.
Edwards’ administration had asked senators to reject much of the House version of the budget.
Among the significant changes that the Senate panel quickly approved with little debate, the Senate has moved funding for the Attorney General’s Office back under the larger budget document.
House members had broken the AG’s funding into a separate bill that they said would give Attorney General Jeff Landry more flexibility.
The Senate also rejected the House plan to skim $100 million from fees and other dedicated funds that transfer through a state debt fund.
“We think it’s unworkable, unconstitutional, ill-advised and certainly needs to be eliminated,” Dardenne had said of the siphoning plan, which also would have led to deeper cuts to agencies that rely on self-generated funding, including fees.
The Senate’s latest version funds TOPS at about half of its projected $300 million full-funding level, LaFleur said. Under separate legislation lawmakers also approved Monday, such a cut would mean that individual scholarships received through TOPS would take a proportionate hit. That means no student would be at risk of outright losing his or her award because of the budget crisis, but all would be cut at a percent relative to state funding for the program.
Meanwhile, funding for the private partners who run the state’s safety net hospital system would take a $60 million cut.
Leaders said that it would be left up to the Department of Health and Hospitals to allocate funding with a priority placed on medical education programs.
“The partnerships are not fully funded, at all,” said Hymel.
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