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Rep. Lance Harris, R-Alexandria, left, chats with House Appropriations chairman Rep. Cameron Henry Jr., R-Metairie, as Henry prepares to close on HB1, the state budget bill, Thursday April 19, 2018, in Baton Rouge, La. The budget bill passed 55-47.

What do Republican legislative leaders want?

Well, until just a few days ago, they wanted a budget that slashed health care spending. Now they’re not so sure.

Yes, they voted for the slash-and-burn budget in the House Appropriations Committee, and then on the House floor. Yes, they put pressure on their own wavering members, because House Bill 1 was a hard sell, even with 61 GOP members and 53 votes needed for the budget bill. The leadership got only 55.

Yes, they even “compromised” a bit, spreading around some available funding in response to criticism of the health care cuts.

But the evidence continued to roll in that the budget was a stinker.

The House budget plan would nearly defund the state's safety-net hospitals, only funds 80 percent of the money needed for the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students, and it would drastically reduce funding for medical education programs in the state, potentially leaving Louisiana with no functioning medical schools.

For every dollar cut in Medicaid, the state loses two matching dollars from the U.S. government. Tax money, sure, but still the equivalent of turning away a billion-dollar-plus payroll in well-paid, nonpolluting health care jobs. It would be tough on his bottom line if GOP leader Lance Harris, of Alexandria, ran his convenience stores on the principle that fewer customers is better.

These are good jobs, including many of the Republican members’ constituents, not malingering welfare cheats, a staple of rhetoric this year.

“We came into this session with a clear directive from taxpayers — not to spend more money than we have,” Harris said. “This is what a responsible budget looks like — dealing with the actual figures, the actual money that's available to the state today. The state cannot spend money that it doesn't have.”

For state Rep. Lance Travis and his sidekicks at the fiscal Alamo, the line in the sand suddenly shifted.

All of a sudden, with dire forecasts coming in and the close vote on the House floor — only two to spare, with eight GOP defections — the budget is no longer quite the noble attack on Big Government that it was just a few days ago.

In fact, it hardly even counts.

“No one likes the budget. But what it’s going to do is identify the areas that we are short so people around the state can see that,” said state Rep. Mark Abraham, a Lake Charles Republican.

“This is one step in the process,” temporized the former budget jihadist Cameron Henry, a Metairie Republican who chairs Appropriations.

For all Harris’ statement that the state can’t spend money it doesn’t have, the fact is that Harris and Co. have diligently blocked every effort to raise money to replace the $1.3 billion in expiring taxes that is the cause of this problem. Their House Bill 1 was phony from the get-go because it was premised on the notion that there won’t be a special session to deal with the “fiscal cliff” that until recently the House leaders seemed happy to drive right off.

The notion that Louisiana is so drastically overtaxed that we ought to let $1.3 billion in revenues go away is amazingly disingenuous. What the House leadership does not want to do is take tough votes to replace the lost revenues; if you’re an ideological “movement conservative,” you want to cut government.

“I would hope that members realize this is what taxpayers sent us here to do,” Henry said.

Do people really want a budget that throws away health care jobs and services for thousands of families across the state? Not really, as Republicans in Congress learned when they tried to repeal the U.S. health care law last year.

To little notice, the governor’s office called attention to a new analysis of state and local tax burdens in the nation, and Louisiana is near the bottom. But vast amounts of the money that could pay for health care and colleges, as well as other services, have been wasted in the tax cuts and business breaks larded out of the Treasury by many of these same anti-government conservatives during the Jindal years.

They robbed from the poor to give to the rich and called it fiscal responsibility.

As a pure political matter, they think that what they are doing is popular: “The public wants to know we are spending less money in government today than we were last year or the year before that,” opined Sen. Sharon Hewitt, R-Slidell, earlier this year.

Maybe, but when confronted with the utterly predictable backlash against these cuts, why is it no longer the Alamo but only one ambiguous step in the process?

Email Lanny Keller at lkeller@theadvocate.com.

Our Views: Don't let Louisiana legislators dodge personal responsibility for fiscal crisis