Louisiana House Backs Budget With New Taxes, But Still Cuts
BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — A nearly $29 billion Louisiana state operating budget that contains new tax money, but still cuts spending on colleges, health services and public safety programs won House passage Thursday.
Lawmakers voted 96-5 and 96-7 for the two main budget bills, part of a package of financial measures sponsored by House Appropriations Chairman Cameron Henry that were sent to the Senate for consideration.
The spending plan for the financial year that begins July 1 would slash less deeply than a prior version vetoed by Gov. John Bel Edwards, because it accounts for $400 million in new taxes backed by the House in the ongoing special session that must end Monday. The taxes, however, haven't won final legislative passage yet.
"We still have a lot of work to do in a short period of time," said Henry, a Metairie Republican.
Democrats questioned the urgency of House GOP leaders to reach a final budget deal by session's end. New Orleans Rep. Walt Leger, the House's top-ranking Democrat, unsuccessfully sought to send a duplicate budget bill to the Senate, in case Henry tries to shelve his spending plan amid financial disputes with the Senate.
"I have a grave concern that there are some members who wish to force us into a third special session" this year, Leger said.
Henry waited a week in the two-week special session before filing a budget proposal. A disagreement with the Senate last year forced a special session because House GOP leaders wouldn't bring the budget up for a final vote.
Henry pledged: "I will guarantee you that you will have a budget bill to vote on."
Though the budget proposal contains fewer cuts than the worst-case scenario, the additional money isn't enough to continue all programs and services next year.
The TOPS college tuition program would cover only 90 percent of tuition costs for the more than 50,000 students who receive the aid in the 2018-19 school year. Louisiana would give sheriffs less for housing state prisoners in their local jails and transitional work programs. Other public safety programs, including the juvenile justice office, would take a hit.
The health department estimates its cut would top $500 million with lost federal and other matching dollars. Health officials say the department would eliminate or shrink mental health and substance abuse programs, along with services for children with developmental disabilities. The proposal prohibits cuts to Louisiana's safety-net hospitals, nursing homes and certain programs for the elderly and disabled.
House Republican leaders downplay the cuts' impact, saying total spending across state government would drop by 1 percent and would be larger than what Louisiana spent two years earlier. The operating budget would spend about $300 million less next year than this year.
Reductions aren't applied evenly across the board, however. Democrats also say mandated cost increases in state government agencies — such as election expenses, federally required health costs and state worker pay raises — make the cuts larger because dollars required to pay for those items force reduced spending elsewhere.
About $1.4 billion in temporary taxes will disappear July 1. With other tax offsets, Louisiana is estimated to get $648 million less in general tax dollars next year. Edwards, a Democrat, wants lawmakers to pass $648 million in replacement taxes. House lawmakers only agreed to about $400 million, largely sales taxes. Senators are considering larger tax packages.
Together, with budgets for legislative and judicial agencies, Louisiana would spend about $33 billion next year, under the House-passed measures.
On the House floor, lawmakers added dollars for private schools and judicial programs beyond the taxes supported by the House. If sufficient dollars aren't raised to pay for everything in certain budget bills, items would be cut on a pro rata basis.
House Bills 1 and 35: www.legis.la.gov
– by Melinda Deslatte, AP reporter