Senators rework $25B budget, reverse House cuts
By MELINDA DESLATTE
BATON ROUGE, La. — The Senate’s budget-writing committee took its turn Wednesday at crafting next year’s $25 billion spending plan, adding $350 million in state dollars to reverse proposed cuts and backpedaling many financing changes sought by the House.
The 2013-14 budget proposal approved by the Senate Finance Committee used a mix of patchwork financing and new dollars from improved state income forecasts to fill gaps in public school financing, the TOPS free college tuition program and deals to privatize the LSU-run hospitals that care for the poor and uninsured.
“We have done the best we can to restore as many things as we could,” said Sen. Jack Donahue, R-Mandeville, chairman of the committee.
Most of the cuts proposed by the House to supplies, travel, vacant jobs and contracts in state agencies were reversed after senators were told many of those cuts would fall on the state health department and could cause the closure of health facilities and steep drops in services.
Dollars were added to pay for the state’s voucher program that sends children to private schools with taxpayer dollars. The $47 million was included outside of the public school formula, to comply with a Louisiana Supreme Court ruling declaring that financing scheme unconstitutional.
New funding was provided to public colleges and to expand a program that provides home- and community-based care to the developmentally disabled.
Donahue said the budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1 will be debated by the full Senate on Saturday. The Finance Committee adopted its 43 pages of amendments without objection, making it unlikely that substantive changes will be made on the Senate floor.
If a majority of House lawmakers don’t like the changes, that could set up a showdown over the budget in the final days of the session that ends June 6.
Senators reworked a House budget compromise that was reached after weeks of behind-the-scenes haggling between Democrats and conservative House members who disagreed with Gov. Bobby Jindal’s financing methods.
The Finance Committee restored some patchwork financing sought by Jindal to pay for ongoing programs and services, but that had been stripped by the House. Senators kept the “one-time money” below a threshold that would require a two-thirds vote for passage in the House, however.
The committee also removed a tie between the budget and changes to the budget process sought by conservative GOP lawmakers that would limit the use of piecemeal funding in future years.
The bloc of House conservatives, nicknamed the fiscal hawks, say the use of such financing creates repeated cycles of budget problems. But senators and Jindal say without the dollars, health care and colleges would face unnecessary cuts.
Donahue said senators crafted a budget proposal that uses the structure sent by the House, by maintaining dollars anticipated from a planned tax amnesty program and from proposals to shrink tax break programs for business. Budget analysts have questioned if the dollars, particularly the $200 million from the amnesty program, will pan out as anticipated.
He noted that several budget gaps surfaced after the House devised its budget deal, including a shortfall in public school funding, in the TOPS program and in payments to local sheriffs for housing state prisoners.
“I think we put something together that works with the House, along the lines of that they sent us, dealing with the circumstances that changed from the time that we got it,” Donahue said.
Senators stripped out House plans to pay down general debt and retirement debt with one-time dollars and instead shifted that money to ongoing services.
They added at least $40 million to higher education above what Jindal and the House both recommended, seeking to help colleges struggling with financial woes after years of budget cuts.
With Senate committee action, the Jindal administration says its plans to privatize nearly all of LSU’s public hospitals are adequately funded. Senators plugged in state dollars that will draw down federal matching money, for a total of $283 million added to next year’s budget for the contracts.
They also included about $24 million for termination pay for the hospital workers who will be laid off in the privatization deals.
The committee plugged in $123 million in newly-available dollars tied to the BP oil spill that will be used to pay for coastal restoration projects, and they included additional funding for the attorney general’s office to continue to pursue its lawsuit against the oil giant.
In addition to next year’s budget, the Finance Committee also approved a companion bill that would use last year’s $113 million surplus to fill a gap in this year’s Medicaid budget — rather than repaying the state’s “rainy day” fund as many House members want.