In Budget Debate, House Picks Safety Net Hospitals Over TOPS

BATON ROUGE (AP) — Lawmakers in the Louisiana House reshuffled the dollars in a nearly $26 billion state operating budget proposal Thursday, choosing to protect the safety net hospitals for the uninsured at the expense of the TOPS free college tuition program.

         With a narrow 49-43 vote, the hospitals were prioritized amid a struggle to close a $600 million shortfall next year. The decision capped nine hours of debate over the budget proposal to finance state government programs in the year that begins July 1.

         Budget debate was scheduled to resume Friday morning.

         The House reversed course from the approach that the House Appropriations Committee took in coming up with the nearly $300 million to pay for all TOPS-eligible students next year. With Thursday's action, the tuition aid program would be $72 million short of fully funded.

         Appropriations Chairman Cameron Henry argued against the move, saying students graduating from high school this month and students already in college were expecting to get TOPS money in the fall.

         "That check needs to be written for the 51,000 students," said Henry, R-Metairie, who handled the budget bill on the House floor.

         Others said the hospitals that care for the poor and needy — and the medical schools that rely on those facilities for their training programs — should rank higher.

         "Universities and health care have to trump TOPS," said Rep. Rob Shadoin, R-Ruston.

         Several lawmakers were missing for the late night vote, leaving open the possibility that TOPS supporters could try to rework the budget again Friday.

         Before money was reshuffled to the hospitals, Gov. John Bel Edwards called the approach backed by the Appropriations Committee irresponsible, saying cuts need to be more evenly distributed. He said the proposal could end all the safety net hospital deals, disrupt medical training programs and toss thousands from health care programs for the disabled and elderly.

         Henry suggested the Edwards administration made the cuts appear worse than they would be. He said health department officials said the reductions would hit programs that are particularly sensitive to lawmakers, like services for the developmentally disabled and money for the rural hospitals, "for shock effect."

         "It is something they know pulls on the heart strings for everybody," he said.

         Health and Hospitals Secretary Rebekah Gee said she has little flexibility in the more than $11 billion budget proposed for her department. Only certain Medicaid services can be cut and still meet the federal criteria for the program that makes up the bulk of the state and federal spending in the agency, she said.

         "We don't have a lot of wiggle room," Gee told lawmakers.

         The budget debate stretched over more than nine hours. Lawmakers reversed an Appropriations Committee proposal to eliminate the inspector general's office, but rejected efforts to steer more dollars to public defenders' offices. They added a ban on cutting financing for the rural hospitals.

         The House spent the first three hours of the debate haggling over whether to place the attorney general's office in a separate bill that would give the governor less oversight over his spending. Lawmakers voted 69-26 for the $63 million breakaway budget bill, requested by Attorney General Jeff Landry.

         Critics say the move is unconstitutional. Edwards threatened to veto the measure if it passes, calling it "politically-motivated."

         "The state's budget crisis demands 100 percent of our attention, and a power grab, such as this, only serves as a distraction at a critical time," the governor said in a statement.

         Landry defended the move on the House floor, telling lawmakers he's a "statewide constitutional officer" who shouldn't fall under the governor's oversight.

         "The way we've been doing it is dangerous because it is in conflict with the constitutional principles of a government of checks and balances," Landry said.

         Both in office since January, the governor and attorney general have clashed over several issues. Landry said he hadn't run into budget management problems with Edwards, "But I know it's coming."

         The separate budget bill would allow Landry's office to shift dollars among programs more easily — and to only seek legislative approval for midyear financing adjustments, rather than going through the Edwards administration.

         Other than Landry, no other statewide elected official would get his own budget bill.

         "It's a good opportunity to see if this works better," Henry said.

         – by AP Reporter Melinda Deslatte



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