Senate approves $25 billion budget for next year
BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — The Louisiana Senate backed a $25 billion state budget proposal Saturday that is sharply at odds with spending plans sought by the House, which could complicate attempts to wrap up work before the legislative session ends in a few days.
The 2013-14 budget approved by the Senate in a 37-1 vote would cover programs and services for the fiscal year that begins July 1.
Senators heavily rewrote the spending proposal passed by the House, removing many cuts sought by conservative House Republicans and restoring some patchwork financing the House stripped.
Finance Committee Chairman Jack Donahue said senators thought cuts proposed by the House were too deep and could hurt public colleges and health care. House members said they were disappointed and unhappy with many of the changes.
Complicating the possibility for final passage, the Senate version of the budget appears to use so much one-time money for ongoing programs and services that it triggers a two-thirds vote requirement for backing by the House. That hurdle would be difficult to reach.
Days for the two sides to reach a final budget deal are running short. The legislative session must end Thursday.
The lone senator to vote against the spending plan was Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, who said the budget relies on accounting gimmicks, public hospital privatization deals with financing gaps and other tactics that won't provide long-term stability in state operations.
"It duct-tapes the holes in our ship just enough to make it seaworthy," she said after more than four hours of debate on the budget.
Peterson, D-New Orleans, said lawmakers should have considered raising revenue through tax changes, even though Gov. Bobby Jindal said he would veto such measures.
She described the budget as irresponsible. Donahue, R-Mandeville, took offense.
"This is a good budget, best budget I've seen since I've been here. I think that the Finance Committee did a great job with it," Donahue said. "I'm proud of this budget."
Senators kept the House's revenue-raising plans, such as trims to business tax breaks and the use of a tax amnesty program to drum up cash, but they refused to pass constitutional changes that would rework the budget process, instead advancing them as two year pilot programs.
The Senate reinserted money from property sales, legal settlements and other one-time sources to pay for ongoing programs and expenses — a particular point of contention with a group of conservative House Republicans nicknamed the "fiscal hawks."
The fiscal hawks blame that type of funding for continuing cycles of budget problems. When the money is spent, lawmakers and the governor must scramble to replace the funding each year.
According to the Legislative Fiscal Office, the Senate budget uses more than $270 million in piecemeal financing for ongoing services, an amount high enough that the funding would need support from two-thirds of House members to pass the budget.
Donahue said new shortfalls in K-12 education, the free college tuition program called TOPS and deals to privatize the LSU-run hospitals emerged when the Senate received the budget proposal from the House. He said senators didn't believe the budget could balance without using some one-time money.
Most of the cuts proposed by the House to supplies, travel, vacant jobs and contracts in state agencies were reversed.
Money was added to pay for the state's voucher program that sends children to private schools with taxpayer dollars. The $45 million was included outside of the public school formula, to comply with a Louisiana Supreme Court ruling declaring that financing scheme unconstitutional.
Senators added new funding for public colleges and for expansion of a program that provides home- and community-based care to the developmentally disabled.
Among the changes made Saturday, the Senate added a $50 million, one-time bonus for certified public school teachers.
Jindal issued a statement applauding the Senate version.
"We appreciate the work the Senate did in crafting their budget, including valuable investments in education for scholarships for children and bonus pay for teachers and school personnel. These important investments in our education system will be great for educators and students."
Senators rejected a proposal to keep enrollment in Jindal's voucher program flat and to stop a planned expansion that will add another 4,000 students next year.
Rep. Dan "Blade" Morrish, R-Jennings, said it would be fiscally irresponsible to continue to grow the size of the program, without a dedicated source of funding. He compared it to the TOPS program, which costs more than $200 million and continues to grow.
"We need to put on the brakes," Morrish said of vouchers.
Sen. Conrad Appel, R-Metairie, said the state should give as many children as possible the ability to leave failing schools.
"If you send them back to the schools they came from, I promise you they have no future," he said.
Supporters of Morrish's proposal said the voucher program doesn't ensure the children go to better schools and siphons dollars away from public schools that need the funding. But the amendment failed in a 15-19 vote.
The Senate also jettisoned a proposal to block any public money to Planned Parenthood for non-abortion health services because of a Texas lawsuit against the organization.
Senators voting against the proposal by Sen. A.G. Crowe, R-Slidell, said they had too little information about the case and no explanation why it was relevant to Louisiana. They also noted no dollars were currently planned to pay for Planned Parenthood services in the state.
With far less debate, the Senate unanimously passed a more than $4 billion, multi-year state construction budget that includes $300 million more in new projects than the state can afford to spend in the 2013-14 fiscal year. That proposal goes back to the House for approval of Senate changes.
MELINDA DESLATTE,Associated Press