LA Gov. Pans Budget Proposal Advancing In Louisiana House

Gov. John Bel Edwards

BATON ROUGE (AP) — Gov. John Bel Edwards slammed the budget proposal advancing in the House, saying Wednesday that it "teeters between irresponsible and reckless" by making deep reductions to health care services.

         House Republican leaders earlier this week unveiled their spending plan for the financial year that begins July 1 and the ways they propose to close a $600 million shortfall. The 2016-17 budget proposal, which has won the support of the House Appropriations Committee, will be considered by the full House on Thursday.

         In advance of that debate, the Democratic governor offered strong criticism of the proposal, which he said would damage safety net hospitals, graduate medical education and health care programs for the developmentally disabled.

         The committee's plan protects the TOPS free college tuition program by proposing deeper reductions across state agencies, including the health department.

         "While we are all working to make sure we can end the cycle of dangerous cuts to education and health care, including TOPS, this plan is nothing more than a political stunt that jeopardizes the future of our state and puts families at unnecessary risk," Edwards said in a statement.

         Health and Hospitals Secretary Rebekah Gee said the House budget would be "devastating to Louisiana's health care system."

         At the same time the Edwards administration was trashing the budget proposal, the nonpartisan Council for A Better Louisiana issued an assessment describing the spending recommendations as a "faux budget that appears to score some political points in one corner while exacerbating serious problems in another."

         House leaders identified the TOPS program, which is highly popular with middle income voters, as a priority for financing.

         Edwards proposed to fund only about a third of the money needed to fully pay for all TOPS-eligible students. The Appropriations Committee came up with the remaining $183 million at the expense of other state agencies, in part by carving away money paid to them in fees for services. About $84 million was shifted from the health department to TOPS, according to Edwards' chief budget adviser, Jay Dardenne.

         When he offered the changes, Committee Chairman Cameron Henry, R-Metairie, said the governor placed a higher priority on the health department than higher education in his budget recommendations and the committee "balanced it a little bit more."

         Edwards recommended protecting five safety net hospitals and leaving four others without state financing, saying he prioritized hospitals that are most critical to medical training programs. The committee reshuffled those dollars to instead spread them out across all nine hospitals, with each taking a cut.

         The governor said that change could provoke all the private hospitals operators to walk away from their safety net deals with the state, threatening hospital closures and ending medical training programs based in the hospitals and their clinics.

         In addition, the Edwards administration said the deeper health department cuts would strip services from 5,600 people, including children, the elderly and people with disabilities and force reductions to rural hospitals.

         Edwards wants to call lawmakers into a June tax special session, to raise more money to stave off cuts. But Republican House leaders have shown resistance to the idea.

         – by AP Reporter Melinda Deslatte



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