Senators rework next year's $25B budget proposal on Sunday

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — A nearly $25 billion state operating budget proposed for next year was rewritten Sunday by state senators who stripped many of the cuts and changes the House made to the governor's initial spending recommendations.
The Senate Finance Committee used an improved revenue forecast to reverse across-the-board cuts the House had planned for contracts, overtime pay and vacant positions in the 2014-15 spending plan for the fiscal year that begins July 1.
"We used everything that was available," said Sen. Jack Donahue, R-Mandeville, committee chairman.
In addition to restoring dollars to areas the House slated for slashing, senators also refused many of the add-ons and spending adjustments sought by lawmakers in the House.
House-backed changes to education spending plans were undone. New dollars the House added to programs for the disabled were taken out. Cuts to the economic development department were reversed. A planned pay raise for state troopers got cut in half.
The Finance Committee approved 48 pages of changes in a matter of minutes, with only one vote of opposition, from Sen. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge.
Claitor objected to removing dollars the House had added to health care services and pouring $4.5 million into covering Louisiana's commitment to IndyCar, which plans to start racing in New Orleans next year.
"We're taking money away from the disabled community and giving it to motor sports?" Claitor asked.
"The answer to your question, Sen. Claitor, is yes," Donahue replied.
Funding for disabled services still is slated to increase by $26 million next year, but larger increases added by the House were removed.
Gov. Bobby Jindal had promised the state incentive for the IndyCar race, but hadn't included it in his original budget proposal, so lawmakers were left to find a way to pay for it.
"There are commitments made when they get those things to come down here. I wouldn't want to renege on it," Donahue said.
Senators also boosted money for the LSU hospital privatization deal in Shreveport by more than $42 million, using a mix of state and federal financing.
The full Senate is expected to debate the budget Wednesday, after the rewritten bill received unanimous backing from the Finance Committee.
As it heads to the Senate floor, the budget includes Jindal's proposals for new spending on health care and education. Rank-and-file state workers would get a pay raise, but would also face new premium hikes for health insurance.
More than $70 million in "efficiencies" recommended by a consulting firm hired by the Jindal administration would be required to balance the spending plans. But senators refused to agree to close 18 Office of Motor Vehicles locations that had been included on the savings list.
The committee added reporting requirements from the Jindal administration to track progress on the savings initiative.
A $40 million incentive fund for Louisiana's public universities and colleges sought by Jindal to steer dollars to high-demand programs in science and technology was maintained, but the financing was reworked so it's split between the state's operating and construction budgets.
Lawmakers have stayed the course on the privatization of the LSU hospital system, despite concerns raised by the federal rejection of financing plans for more than half of the deals. The Jindal administration has submitted a revised proposal to the federal health agency.
The spending plan is balanced with nearly $1 billion in patchwork financing that isn't expected to reappear a year later, which will cause new headaches when lawmakers must devise the 2015-16 budget next year.


MELINDA DESLATTE, Associated Press

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