The Senate Finance Committee advanced a budget Friday that, frankly, no one likes. Food stamps? Gone. Agriculture centers throughout the state? Shuttered. Museums and state parks? Closed indefinitely. Meat inspectors? Terminated. Veterans cemetery program? Eliminated.
"We are in a serious financial crisis because we do not have sufficient revenue to pay for the services that I think people expect," Senate Finance Chair Eric LaFleur, D-Ville Platte, said. "Without the revenue that needs to be raised, government can't function."
House Bill 1 now heads to the Senate floor next week — a step seen as crucial to getting to the next phase in what has become a three-year battle over state finances.
Leaders from both sides of the aisle and both chambers expect the Legislature to enter a special session in the coming weeks to try to prevent the nearly $650 million "fiscal cliff" the state faces when temporary tax measures expire June 30. But House Republicans wanted the Senate to demonstrate its priorities before they would agree to end the current session early to begin another revenue-focused special session.
"We all know that this is just not sustainable," Sen. Ronnie Johns, R-Lake Charles, said of the budget proposal which would fund critical health care services and medical education programs while cutting most state agencies by nearly 25 percent. "Hopefully, this will send a message to every member of the House and Senate that we have to raise some revenue."
Because the “pretend” budget, as it was called in committee, fully funds the state Department of Health, it has neutralized the narrative of thousands of nursing home residents being kicked to the curb that has made national news this week when notices of threats to funding were mailed to 37,000 Medicaid recipients.
LaFleur said it was important to him to identify life-or-death programs as "priorities" that must be funded, while demonstrating what it would mean to other state services if revenue isn't raised.
"We will lose approximately $1 billion in just a few weeks and this is a way to demonstrate what it would take to fund some of these core issues that are a high priority," he said.
At one point in the hearing, LaFleur referred to the proposal as the "craziest, most cockamamie budget we could pass" to highlight the absurdity of it ever becoming the actual state spending plan.
LaFleur said the priorities-focused budget idea was built with input from members of the committee, as well as senators who don't serve on the budget panel to go through with advancing House Bill 1 and identifying the chamber's priorities.
"I think we have done what is responsible, in terms of passing a budget and recognizing the need for more revenue," said Sen. Sharon Hewitt, R-Slidell.
The Senate committee separately adopted two resolutions outlining the areas they view as priorities heading into a special session, including extending a portion of a one-cent sales tax that will roll off the books on July 1, charging sales taxes on items that would otherwise be exempt (a process commonly referred to in the State Capitol as "cleaning pennies") and reviewing which tax credits are less lucrative to the state.
If the state would boost revenue by about $200 million a year if it continues to charging one-fourth of the penny sales tax hike set to expire next month, for example.
House Republican leaders are expected to formally respond Monday to the plans offered up by the committee.
The House passed its own version of House Bill 1 last month that included deep cuts to health care funding, prompting Gov. John Bel Edwards' administration to send letters to thousands of elderly and disabled residents.
House Republicans blasted the move as politically calculated.
"This is premature at best, reckless at worst," House Appropriations Chair Cameron Henry, R-Metairie, said Wednesday after the Louisiana Department of Health held a news conference announcing the notices would go out the following day.
The Senate Finance budget proposal drew strong rebuke from Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne, a former chairman of the Finance Committee himself, who argued that continuing work on HB1 is a "foolhardy" endeavor that is prolonging the start of the special session.
"You have not passed a responsible budget," Dardenne said. "This is not a pretend body. This is not the body that engages in make believe."
His comments visibly irritated committee members, even senators normally friendly to the governor's office.
"Don't think for one second we didn't know what we were doing," LaFleur said.
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He said that senators, who have often been sidelined in budget and tax talks that have to begin in the House, wanted to make a statement on their own priorities.
"It is our responsibility to get a budget out," said Sen. Bodi White, R-Central.