Louisiana House approves budget plan that funds TOPS at 70 percent as clock winds down on special session _lowres

Advocate staff photo by PATRICK DENNIS --Rep. Cameron Henry, R-Metairie, answers questions about his supplemental spending bill HB 69 Monday in the House Chamber during the last week of the second special legislative session,.

The Louisiana Legislature is sending a budget proposal to Gov. John Bel Edwards that nearly no one believes is adequate to fund state services in the coming year.

The House agreed 61-37 to send House Bill 1 to Edwards' desk on Thursday, a week after the Senate, through gritted teeth, advanced the same spending plan that would deeply cut higher education, child welfare, prosecutors, tourism programs and nearly all state government except health care. 

Edwards described HB1 this week as "completely catastrophic to higher education, TOPS and anything other than health care."

The budget bill's passage marked a critical end to the regular session that lawmakers are hoping to wrap up Friday, and the jump off point for a special session that begins Tuesday to try to avoid the nearly $650 million "fiscal cliff" the state faces when temporary tax measures expire June 30.

"We're at a place now where I believe that we have a larger number of representatives and senators who acknowledge we have got to fix the budget," Edwards, a Democrat, said of his optimism about the upcoming special session.

As it stands, HB1 would cut most state agencies by nearly 25 percent if additional revenue isn't raised to plug the latest budget gap.

"By passing this bill our constituents will see very clearly laid out what is not funded," said House Appropriations Chair Cameron Henry, R-Metairie.

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The Legislature begins a two-week special session on Tuesday, with an eye likely on partially extending a portion of a temporary one-cent sales tax that was passed in 2016 as a "bridge" to a more permanent solution to the state's rocky finances.

Lawmakers have since had multiple sessions that have ended without a replacement plan.

"Do we need to raise some money? Yes," Henry said. "I think it's time to do that."

Henry said he thinks that the budget approved Thursday helps lawmakers make their case for any taxes they may support.

The popular Taylor Opportunity Program for Students would be funded at 70 percent under the current budget plan, meaning student scholarships wouldn't cover the current tuition levels. Higher education in general would be cut by more than 10 percent.

Edwards' administration has said that the budget proposed would end the food stamps program in Louisiana, shutter state parks and museums, cause mass layoffs in state government and possibly put children in danger by cutting funding for child welfare programs.

The governor has avoided saying directly whether he will veto the budget proposal or wait to act as lawmakers work through the special session.

"I will take action as necessary to make sure HB1 as currently drafted doesn't control our appropriations in the coming year," he said on his monthly radio show Wednesday.

Though the final version of the budget proposal varies widely from the spending plan that initially passed the House, the chamber's Republican leaders held a triumphant press conference after the bill's passage.

"Throughout this entire process going back to last session, House Republicans have done our job," said House GOP Caucus Chair Lance Harris, of Alexandria. "We've held the line and saved the people of our state over $500 million in unnecessary taxes."

"We've done our job," he added.

Republicans maintain that because the governor had initially pushed for $994 million — the size of the gap before the boost from the recent federal tax rewrite — lawmakers would have raised taxes too much to cover the gap if they had acted during the special session.

"We're entering into the special session knowing exactly where the funding gaps are and reducing the tax burden to the people of our state," Harris said.

Edwards said he disagrees with that characterization because leaders had already acknowledged that there would be a boost from changes in the federal tax law.

"There was no reason to wait," Edwards said. 

Henry said he hopes that members take the document back to constituents and get feedback on what items should be funded with any additional revenue.

"The positive thing about HB1 is it becomes real so members can go back and see where areas are short," he said. "We have some gaps to fill in."

House Democrats also pushed back on passing a budget before more revenue is raised.

"How did we get here with a budget that looks like this?" said House Democratic Caucus chair Robert Johnson, of Marksville. "This budget is a pretend budget. It pretends to fund things like nursing homes and hospitals because it decimates state agencies and state government."

Johnson said he felt that the budget would send the wrong message to constituents, rather than be a tool for talking to them about the state's spending woes.

"We don't represent pretend people. We represent real people, real constituents. They put real confidence in us," Johnson said. "We must end a political game of chicken and we must quit talking about rhetoric and talk about real solutions."

Follow Elizabeth Crisp on Twitter, @elizabethcrisp.