The Louisiana Legislature's latest round of budget negotiations has prompted the return of what is becoming an annual tug-of-war match between funding TOPS and funding state health care services.
The House Appropriations Committee on Monday advanced its version of a $27 billion state budget to begin July 1 featuring full funding for the popular Taylor Opportunity Program for Students scholarships and deep cuts to safety-net hospitals and other programs that serve the poor and disabled.
"This is a process," House Appropriations Vice Chair Franklin Foil, R-Baton Rouge, said during the committee's hearing on House Bill 1. "There are other steps we'll be going through."
HB1 is scheduled to hit the House floor on Thursday, where it is certain to generate additional debate over where the brunt of nearly $650 million in cuts should land. Lawmakers haven't ruled out the idea of holding yet another special session to try to close all or part of the remaining "fiscal cliff" the state faces when temporary tax measures expire June 30, but they can't take up most revenue-raising measures during the regular session and current budgeting process.
Today in The Rundown: The latest on the state budget, flood recovery and more news from the Louisiana Legislature.
The Republican-dominated House Appropriations Committee agreed to take the bulk a recent boost in revenue to fully fund TOPS and a smaller scholarship program primarily for non-traditional students.
The 17-6 near party-line vote, with one Republican joining Democrats against the proposal, came after weeks of hearings and hours of testimony in House Appropriations. The Senate Finance Committee has also already begun its own hearings on the budget.
The long-running, state-funded TOPS scholarship was created to encourage Louisiana high schoolers who meet certain benchmarks to stay in the state. To qualify, students must take a required high school curriculum and earn at least a 2.5 grade point average and also score at least a 20 on the standardized ACT test – the state average.
"Without TOPS, we struggle to keep our best and brightest in Louisiana," said House Appropriations Chair Cameron Henry, R-Metairie.
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…
The Appropriations panel rejected a proposal from Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, that would have put more funding toward broader higher education and health care priorities. As approved, HB1 calls for a $22 million cut to higher ed, compared to this year, and the Louisiana Department of Health's budget would be slashed by $1.6 billion with the loss of significant federal funding linked to state dollars.
After the House floor, HB1 will be vetted by the Senate. A final spending plan is typically hashed out in negotiations between the two chambers. The regular session must end by June 4.
Edwards, who wants lawmakers to end the regular session early so another special session can be held to partially extend expiring taxes or approve other hikes to plug holes they've created, quickly panned the House Appropriations' plan as "not worth the paper it’s printed on" and said it "gives nothing but false hope to students and parents."
"In rushing to pass amendments out, the House Appropriations Committee proved what we’ve been saying all along – there simply isn’t a way to fashion a budget that adequately funds our state’s pressing needs," Edwards said in a statement. "TOPS is absolutely a priority and should be fully funded, but so should higher education institutions, health care for our seniors and those with disabilities, funding for medical schools in Shreveport and New Orleans, and our partner hospitals. Now we can see that it’s not possible to do that without replacing more of the revenue that is expiring."
The move to prioritize funding for TOPS, which is wildly popular among middle class and more affluent families, mirrors recent actions from the Appropriations Committee, which gets the first bite at the state budget under state law.
Rep. Gary Carter, D-New Orleans, said he worried about the ripple effect cuts to the state's safety-net hospital partners would have. Several of those operators have already said they will walk away from the agreements, threatening the shuttering of hospitals across the state, if their funding is drastically reduced to the levels that have been proposed.
"We have health care providers in the state of Louisiana making tough decisions," Carter said. "I'm a big believer in both education and health care, but I certainly don't want to risk closing any hospital."
Several Democrats also questioned the plan to fund TOPS while cutting general funding for college and university campuses.
"Tuition is gonna go up, so (students) are still going to have to pay more out of their pockets," said Rep. Dustin Miller, D-Opelousas. "I think we should really decide how do we fund it all? What new revenues are we going to pass so we can fully-fund everything."
How they voted:
In favor of sending amended House Bill 1 to the House floor (17): Chairman Cameron Henry, R-Metairie; and Reps. Mark Abraham, R-Lake Charles; Beryl Amedee, R-Houma; Tony Bacala, R-Prairieville; Larry Bagley, R-Stonewall; Johnny Berthelot, R-Gonzales; Rick Edmonds, R-Baton Rouge; Reid Falconer, R-Mandeville; Franklin Foil, R-Baton Rouge; Lance Harris, R-Alexandria; Bob Hensgens, R-Abbeville; Valarie Hodges, R-Denham Springs; Blake Miguez, R-Erath; Steve Pylant, R-Winnsboro; Jerome "Dee" Richard, no party-Thibodaux; Scott Simon, R-Abita Springs; and Jerome "Zee" Zeringue, R-Houma.
Voting against the bill (6): Reps. Robert Billiot, D-Westwego; Gary Carter, D-New Orleans; Charles "Bubba" Chaney, R-Rayville; Walt Leger, D-New Orleans; Dustin Miller, D-Opelousas; and Patricia Smith, D-Baton Rouge.
Absent and not voting (2): James Armes, D-Leesville; and Jack McFarland, R-Winnfield.