La. Senate approves $24.6B budget for next year


BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Senators agreed Wednesday to a $24.6 billion budget to finance state government operations and services next year, sending the heavily rewritten proposal back to the House for consideration with only days remaining in the legislative session.
The spending plan includes new money for services to help the disabled, higher education and public schools. Rank-and-file state workers would get a pay raise, but would also face new premium hikes for health insurance. More than 1,000 state jobs would be cut, though most are vacant.
Many of the across-the-board cuts proposed by the House for contracts, overtime pay and vacant positions were stripped by senators who voted 37-1 for the reworked budget bill after less than two hours of debate.
"I think we did a pretty good job with it," said Finance Committee Chairman Jack Donahue, R-Mandeville, who led the budget-crafting efforts in the Senate.
More than $70 million in "efficiencies" recommended by a consulting firm hired by Gov. Bobby Jindal's administration would be required to balance the spending plan, along with more than $970 million in patchwork financing that isn't expected to reappear a year later.
The only vote of opposition came from Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, D-New Orleans.
Peterson has called the spending proposal "a ticking time bomb" because of the piecemeal financing used to make the numbers work and because it doesn't address ongoing concerns about federal rejection of LSU hospital-privatization financing used in the bill.
Donahue said he had no idea if House members will embrace the Senate changes or reject them and send the budget to a legislative compromise committee.
Senate President John Alario, R-Westwego, said several amendments included in a 13-page budget rewrite on the Senate floor were in response to conversations he had with House leaders about items they'd like to see in the final version.
Alario said he's optimistic the House will agree to the Senate's version of the spending roadmap for the fiscal year that begins July 1.
"I'm hopeful, but if it's a full moon, you never know," he said, joking. "It's a real good budget, I think."
The legislative session must end by Monday at 6 p.m.
Among the changes made on the Senate floor, senators restored about $1.2 million in House-added money for services for the disabled. The Finance Committee had received heavy criticism for stripping the dollars while adding more than $4 million to pay for the Jindal administration's commitment to IndyCar, which plans to start racing in New Orleans next year.
Before passing the budget bill, senators also added $18 million for a pay raise for state troopers, nearly $10 million more than the House sought, and $12 million to cover legal judgments against the state.
The Senate also voted 37-0 Wednesday for a $98.4 million budget to finance the House, Senate and other legislative agencies next year — a $6 million increase. And senators voted 38-0 for a $176 million budget for the state's judiciary next year — an $8 million boost.
The legislative budget heads to the governor's desk, while the judicial budget must go back to the House for consideration of the $8 million increase added by senators.

MELINDA DESLATTE, Associated Press

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