Finish line hours away; no agreement yet
By Katie Gagliano / Manship School News Service
BATON ROUGE — Debate on the state’s $29 billion budget continues as the Legislature enters the final four hours of the regular session, and while some are optimistic lawmakers can avoid a special session, an agreement has yet to be reached at less than four hours to mandatory adjournment.
Senators and House negotiators are haggling over appropriating 100 percent of available funds as Rep. Cameron Henry, R-Metairie, who is carrying the bill on the House floor, refuses to appropriate full funds, and instead is pressing the Senate to walk back its demands.
“There’s an old and new way of doing things,” Henry said. “The House uses the old way where you sit down at a table to negotiate and don’t get up until you’re done.”
If an agreement is not reached by 6 p.m., the Legislature will go into a special session at 6:30 p.m. that is limited in subject matter to the funding bills. Gov. John Bel Edwards 10 days ago, called the special session as a precaution against the sides being a loggerheads at 6 p.m. tonight. The special session technically would last until June 19, but few believes it would go anywhere near that long, if at all.
When legislators arrived this morning it seemed House Speaker Taylor Barras, R-New Iberia, may have brokered a compromise with the Senate, but Henry told reporters he was not on board. Barras’ plan would have appropriated 100 percent of available funding, but in exchange would require state departments to forego spending $50 million in funds to stave off potential mid-year cuts if revenue collections are lower than estimated.
Contradictory stories about the status of the deal were circulating in the Capitol halls early Thursday afternoon, with lawmakers presenting different versions of who approached whom, where the deal stood and the level of effort exerted by the Senate.
Representatives claimed Barras did not approach the House with the plan, but Senate Finance Chairman Eric LaFleur, D-Ville Platte, said otherwise. He noted the idea has been floating in the House as a potential solution last week, and though he discussed the idea with several representatives, the proposal was Barras’.
LaFleur said he thinks Barras likely faced opposition when he presented the plan to House Republicans this morning, and said he believes representatives could come around after discussing the repercussions of spilling over into a special session.
LaFleur said the bill meets the House’s demands for prudent spending and addresses the possibility of a mid-year revenue shortfall. The House’s original counter budget proposal requested the state withhold $154 million of state funds in preparation for a potential mid-year budget shortfall, leaving departments without future access to the funds.
Rejecting the bill when it meets their demands is “disingenuous,” he said.
“It’s just petty politics,” he said. “They’re putting politics ahead of the whole state...they’re acting like ‘swamp people.’”
When asked his thoughts on statements the House is rejecting bill to deny Gov. John Bel Edwards a victory, LaFleur said: “It’s not a victory about any one individual. It’s a victory for Louisiana if we pass this budget.”
He said the current budget plan has no new taxes, fully funds TOPS and funds what is necessary without being excessive, meeting many of the people’s demands.
Senate puts pressure on House over budget
By Katie Gagliano / Manship School News Service
BATON ROUGE — The Senate staged an unprecedented public conference committee on House Bill 1, the key funding bill, Wednesday night calling for the House Republicans and public stakeholders at risk of cuts to come together to better understand the effects of the House’s plan to leave money unappropriated as a hedge against potential revenue shortfalls in the coming fiscal year.
They invited House leadership to attend, an invitation that predictably went immediately into the wastebasket.
The proposal would impose further cuts on higher education, corrections, the Department of Children and Family Services and the Department of Health and Hospitals, as well as nix potential pay raises for 38,000 civil service employees.
Rep. Pat Smith, D-Baton Rouge, was the only House conferee, to attend, but noted she was able to give little input because she had been left out of budget negotiations. Smith was officially named to the conference committee Wednesday earlier that day which will meet Thursday to forge a compromise.
Smith’s appointment likely was a move to appease House Democrats who have threatened to veto the state’s capital outlay plan if they’re unsatisfied with the final budget. Rep. Cameron Henry, R-Metairie, and House Speaker Taylor Barras, R-New Iberia, who are leading negotiations for the House Republicans, didn’t attend the meeting.
Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne said the Senate’s proposal was a responsible spending plan that made use of available state dollars while still remaining austere. Dardenne added the state doesn’t have the option to withhold spending when departments are already strained from years of continued cuts.
“We have many needs in the state that are not being met because we’ve realized an awful lot of cuts over the course of the past two years,” Dardenne said. “There are obviously very real cuts realized in this budget. The way you sent it back over to the House was not free from pain, but to multiply those cuts based upon the proposal that’s before you is just unsatisfactory.”
Corrections Secretary Jimmy LeBlanc said the $17.8 million cut would force the department to furlough 4,600 inmates over the next six months, placing additional strain on probation and parole officers, already overworked and struggling to maintain employee numbers.
Reducing the number of non-violent, non-sex offender inmates in the state prison system was a main component of the justice reinvestment task force package that cleared the Legislature this session. LeBlanc said though that’s true the furlough is meant to occur over a decade, not in under a year. The sudden change could have negative repercussions for his employees, the offenders and probation and parole officers.
The potential furlough of thousands of inmates isn’t the only problem probation and parole officers would face under the House’s proposed cuts.
The officers are also among the 38,000 classified civil service employees who would lose the potential 2-percent pay raise the Senate fully funded. Officers have testified the raise is a key step in reducing the department’s double-digit turnover rates.
The final group to testify was higher education leaders, with the presidents from the LSU system, the University of Louisiana system, Southern University system and the Louisiana Community and Technical Colleges system crowded together at the testifying table to ward off reductions to higher education funding.
The House plan would result in an $8.5 million cut to the LSU system, a $5 million cut to the UL system, a $2.8 million cut to LCTCS schools, and a $1 million cut to the Southern system.
LSU system President F. King Alexander said lawmakers shouldn’t fully fund the TOPS scholarship program if they’re forced to cut institutional budgets.
LSU and other systems, he said, have decreased course offerings, waning faculty numbers and significant maintenance backlogs that prevent them from offering current students the best possible education.
“We need to have our institutions funded first and foremost...TOPS to nowhere doesn’t get you much,” he said.
Senate Finance chairman Eric LaFleur, D-Ville Platte, told the Manship School News Service the hearings helped inform senators’ for a counter offer and there’s “still open ground about where we may end up.”