LA Senate To Debate $26B Operating Budget Proposal Wednesday

Senate President John Alario, R-Westwego

BATON ROUGE (AP) — Louisiana's state senators Wednesday will debate a nearly $26 billion state operating budget for next year that looks strikingly different from the House version, with a greater priority on certain health care services than the TOPS college tuition program.

         Whatever the Senate approves will set up the final negotiations between the two sides with only five days remaining in the legislative session. The disagreements center on how to close a $600 million gap in the budget year that begins July 1, the amount that would be needed to continue all existing government services and programs.

         Gov. John Bel Edwards already has called a special session, to start minutes after the current session ends Monday, for lawmakers to consider taxes to lessen cuts. That means if lawmakers reach a budget deal this session, that won't necessarily be the final word on the state's spending plans for next year.

         Senate President John Alario, R-Westwego, said the budget "will be woefully short of what we need to adequately fund" critical services.

         "There are lots of things that are not funded that are going to cause people some grief," he said.

         The budget proposal up for Senate consideration Wednesday would provide 48 percent of the financing needed to fully pay for all students eligible for TOPS and would cut spending on the safety net hospitals that care for the poor and uninsured.

         Higher education, the LSU medical schools and K-12 public schools would be on the chopping block, along with public safety and child welfare programs, state parks and museums.

         But the Medicaid "waiver" programs that provide home- and community-based care for the elderly and disabled would be spared from cuts. That was made a priority by senators moved by the testimony of families who rely on those services.

         The Edwards administration prefers the Senate version of the budget to the bill passed by the House.

         The House version would have provided about three-quarters of the money needed for TOPS. But it came up with that money by diverting fees people pay for services away from agencies providing those services. Senators didn't believe the diversion was legal and reversed it, agreeing with the Edwards administration.

         Senators also refused to agree with a House-backed plan to give Attorney General Jeff Landry his own budget bill, incorporating his agency back into the main budget proposal.

         House Appropriations Committee Chairman Cameron Henry, R-Metairie, raised several concerns about the Senate version of the budget. For example, the Senate uses $17 million in disputed utility tax payments from chemical plants to help pay for the Medicaid program.

         "The litigation is still ongoing. It hasn't been settled. We don't have access to it. We don't even know when that money's going to come in," Henry said.

         He also said he expected lawmakers in the House to object to a Senate proposal that would let the state health department determine how to divvy up the reductions to the safety net hospitals. And he said senators added money back to departments that said they could handle the cuts proposed by the House.

         – by AP Reporter Melinda Deslatte



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