Louisiana legislators spent much of Wednesday – the penultimate day of the legislative session – locked in a behind-the-scenes battle over who would blink first in negotiations on the state budget for the coming year.
The House started the day with an initial compromise plan: It would agree to move $50 million closer toward the Senate's proposed budget.
But the Senate stuck to its original plan to spend all funding available in the coming year to prevent deeper cuts to state services and to give some low-level employees modest pay raises for the first time in a decade.
After several hours of jockeying between both chambers and Gov. John Bel Edwards, no firm compromise had been brokered to break the latest budget impasse Wednesday evening as Senate leaders held a hearing on the impact the House's proposed cuts would have on colleges and universities, social services and other agencies.
Both the House and Senate have Republican majorities, but the Senate is more closely aligned with Edwards, a Democrat. The House is more conservative and frequently at odds with Edwards
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The legislative session must end by 6 p.m. Thursday.
Senate Finance Committee Chair Eric LaFleur, D-Ville Platte, said he expected House leaders to explain what they think should be cut if the state leaves money on the table.
"They don't indicate where the cuts might be," LaFleur said. "The key for them is to outline the cuts. We want to know where they make cuts."
House Appropriations Committee Chair Cameron Henry, R-Metairie, meanwhile, defended the House's resistance toward spending all money available.
"A majority of House members don't want to spend 100 percent of a wrong number, that's clear from our vote," he said.
The state has had 15 mid-year budget deficits in the past nine years because revenues didn't meet projections.
"I think members want to put the state in a better position," Henry said.
Edwards last week issued a call for a special session to begin 30 minutes after the regular session ends Thursday to give lawmakers more time to work through budget issues if they can't work them out by the time the regular session must end. When negotiations began, leaders of the House and Senate generally agreed that they didn't think that the special session would be needed.
The Legislature frequently works out final budget agreements on the last day of session.
Edwards met with several Republican House members Tuesday to try to convince them to support the Senate's version of the budget, tipping the vote toward the proposal he prefers. But the tactic was met with further resistance.
Rep. Alan Seabaugh, R-Shreveport, said that during a House Republican caucus meeting earlier in the day, only one lawmaker supported the Senate's version of the budget. "We'll come back for a special session," Seabaugh said.
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Henry said that he hopes that the governor will encourage the Senate to agree to spend less in the session's final day.
"Hopefully, he'll be able to mull on that tonight and really appreciate (the House members') stance and allow the Senate to negotiate with us tomorrow on something less than 100 percent," Henry said. "The Senate has decided that where they are is where they want to be; unfortunately that's not where the House wants to be."
The House's initial compromise offer that was presented to leaders Wednesday night asked the Senate to agree to cut spending by about $154 million beyond what it has suggested.
In addition to eliminating the pay raises for corrections and parole officers and other classified employees and reinstating a 2 percent cut initially proposed for higher education, the House compromise plan also called for the state to spend at least $65 million less than what the Senate wanted on public health care for the poor and disabled, which would translate into a $210 million hit to the Louisiana Department of Health's spending because of lost federal matching funds. Social services, which the Senate had sought to protect from cuts because of strains on child abuse cases and housing for foster children, would also be slashed by about $13 million under the House compromise plan.
The cuts proposed in the House outline are on top of 2 percent cuts across many agencies to which the Senate had agreed, after the House rejected most proposals for tax increases in the coming year. The Senate version of the budget, adopted Sunday, spared higher education, social services, prisons and veterans affairs from the across-the-board budget slashing.
"We didn’t have any new taxes, we fully funded TOPS and we opposed cuts," LaFleur said. "It’s a very austere budget that tried to address the necessaries in life. The ball's in their court."
The Senate asked several higher education leaders to attend the Wednesday evening budget hearing, including LSU President F. King Alexander, Louisiana Community and Technical College System President Monty Sullivan, and Higher Education Commissioner Joe Rallo. All are facing less money under the House’s version of the budget.
“Our message is that we’ve had cuts for 14 years in a row,” Rallo said in an interview before the meeting began. “We’re lean. We have nothing else to give.”
Aside from higher education, the Edwards administration sought to outline the impact that the House-proposed cuts would have on the state's health care system, Division of Children and Family Services and the Department of Corrections.
The Department of Corrections estimated that its $17.8 million cut would lead to the early release of 4,600 non-violent inmates and furlough of 350 administrative employees.
Senate President John Alario, R-Westwego, said that the impromptu Senate Finance hearing, which is unusual at this stage in budget negotiations, was called to give members a clearer picture about the impact deeper cuts would have.
"(Committee members) want an explanation of the proposed cuts," he said. "We want to know when we go home what’s being cut.”