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Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Governor, House leaders deadlocked on budget

Posted By on Wed, Jun 7, 2017 at 1:25 PM

click to enlarge Gov. John Bel Edwards says monies in the House budget proposal for TOPS would send students “to institutions with inferior funding and educational opportunities.”
  • Gov. John Bel Edwards says monies in the House budget proposal for TOPS would send students “to institutions with inferior funding and educational opportunities.”

Negotiations over next year’s state operating budget remain very tense in Baton Rouge as leaders of the House and Senate — along with representatives of the governor’s office — wrangle over whether, where, and how much to cut state spending after July 1.

According to several sources in the talks, GOP-led House has put forth a proposal that continues to make deep cuts — a total of more than $154 million compared to the Senate’s proposed budget, and a total of $233 million in cuts to higher education, health care, childcare services and other critical services. The governor and the Senate are balking at the House proposal, and the entire process appears gridlocked as lawmakers approach the final 24 hours of the annual session.

Earlier in the session, the House passed what it calls a “standstill” budget that spends just over 98 percent of what the state Revenue Estimating Conference predicts the state will take in. The latest House proposal for next fiscal year would cut more than $154 million from hospitals, higher education and other social services. The governor says the House also has not addressed $80 million in unmet needs for the current fiscal year (known in the Capitol as the supplemental budget). The Senate passed a spending plan more to the governor’s liking. That plan spends all of the estimated revenue for next year and includes a supplemental budget, but the House refused to go along with the Senate version.

The budget bill, known as HB 1, is now in a conference committee, where representatives from both chambers (and the governor’s office) are attempting to find middle ground.
So far, there is little hope for finding that middle ground by 6 p.m. Thursday — the deadline for ending the current legislative session. If no budget deal is reached by that deadline, lawmakers will have to reconvene in a special session 30 minutes later.
One of the major sticking points is funding for the TOPS college scholarship program. The House plan fully funds TOPS but cuts direct state aide to public colleges and universities. The Senate plan gives more money directly to higher ed and also fully funds TOPS. Gov. John Bel Edwards says the House proposal would send students “to institutions with inferior funding and educational opportunities.”

Edwards also says his original budget proposal cut state spending nearly $100 million, including cuts to hospitals and mental health programs. The latest House plan would cut another $65.6 million — for a total of $179 million in cuts to health care programs. Because of federal matching dollars, the total impact of the cuts would be $527 million, Edwards says.

Sources close to the negotiations leaked a copy of the House conferees’ proposal (see above). Most of additional $154 million cut by the House comes from health and hospitals ($65.6 million), higher education ($19.5 million), pay raises for many state employees in the executive branch ($18.9 million), corrections and jails ($17.8 million), social services and youth services (a combined $20.4 million), and public safety ($6.1 million).

Frustrations and tensions are running high on both sides of this issue, which has become an annual political rite of spring in Baton Rouge. The governor has failed to convince House conservatives to increase any taxes, so now the fight is over how much — and where — to cut.

Stay tuned.

NOTE: Republican Delegation leader Rep. Lance Harris of Alexandria and House Appropriations Committee chair Rep. Cameron Henry of Jefferson could not be reached for comment as this story was being written. Both men are directly involved in the budget negotiations and understandably are hard to reach at this hour. We will post updates if we hear back from either or both.

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