Louisiana House Debating Next Year's $24B Budget Proposal
BATON ROUGE (AP) — After weeks of wrangling for ways to generate more money, the Louisiana House opened debate Thursday on next year's more than $24 billion budget proposal.
A package of budget bills to finance state government operations in the 2015-16 fiscal year that begins July 1 was up for consideration, with lawmakers feeling a bit more upbeat about the budget situation than when they opened the legislative session in April.
Since then, the House passed a series of tax changes to raise more money for state coffers, an estimated $615 million. That, combined with money from improved income forecasts and other patchwork financing, would close about $850 million of the gap originally projected for next year.
House leaders estimate lawmakers need another $150 million to address the remaining list of budget needs identified by the House and Senate.
"That's 85 percent of the issue solved by the House," said Appropriations Committee Chairman Jim Fannin, R-Jonesboro, who handles the budget bills in the House.
While he acknowledged some agencies still face cuts, Fannin said: "But these cuts will be reduced and we will fund our highest priorities."
Higher education, which started the legislative session facing cuts of up to 80 percent of its state financing, would be spared slashing. But under the House version of the budget, cuts still would fall across some public health care services, state parks, museums and agricultural services.
Without additional dollars, the LSU privatization deals are short of what the hospital operators say they need to continue providing the current level of services to the poor and uninsured who rely on the facilities.
In addition, LSU's medical schools in New Orleans and Shreveport would be left with millions of dollars in insurance and retiree costs from the privatization deals that medical school leaders say could leave them struggling to stay afloat.
The budget would be balanced with $440 million in money from a tax amnesty program, one-time debt prepayment and other piecemeal funding that isn't expected to be available a year later.
Whatever passes the House is tied to a tricky balancing act with the Senate.
Many of the tax bills — which would rework tax break programs, scale back state subsidies for businesses and raise the state cigarette tax — face opposition, particularly from businesses that would find themselves paying more in taxes with the changes.
A political action committee for the chemical industry is running radio ads around the state attacking one of the tax measures, and lawmakers say some of their districts have been hit with robo-calls criticizing their tax votes.
The Senate is expected to make changes to the tax bills, and senators are trying to come up with more money to plug into next year's budget. The opposition from the business community is certain to make those financial negotiations harder.
Meanwhile, several of the tax measures don't meet Gov. Bobby Jindal's parameters of what tax changes he's willing to consider. The Republican governor, who is building a likely presidential campaign, won't agree to anything considered a net tax increase by national anti-tax activist Grover Norquist.
Senators have been trying to find loopholes to Jindal's rules, to cobble together a budget and tax deal that would be considered veto-proof.
– by AP Reporter Melinda Deslatte