Louisiana's Deficit-Closing Session Ends With Budget Deal To Erase $304M Gap

BATON ROUGE (AP) — Louisiana's deficit-closing special session ended Wednesday with lawmakers passing a deal to erase a $304 million budget gap without the deep and damaging cuts some had worried would fall across the final four months of the financial year.

         After days of back-door negotiating, the House delivered the critical vote with only hours to go before the session had to end, agreeing to spend $99 million from Louisiana's "rainy day" fund to help lessen the slashing. Lawmakers then wrapped up work seven hours early.

         "This has been a good day for the state of Louisiana," Gov. John Bel Edwards said after the session shut down.

         Edwards had supported, and the Senate had passed days earlier, legislation authorizing the $99 million. But Republican leaders in the House continued to balk, trying to shrink use of the savings account. In the end, the House voted 92-9 for the measure, well above the 70 votes needed.

         "Not all of us probably agree with the number we've arrived at," said House Speaker Taylor Barras, R-New Iberia. "This is the negotiation that is required."

         The Democratic governor called the 10-day special session to rebalance Louisiana's $27 billion operating budget for the fiscal year that ends June 30. Before the session, House Republican leaders questioned the need for the gathering at all, saying Edwards and the Legislature's joint budget committee could close the gap themselves.

         Edwards said that budget-cutting authority was limited and the full Legislature could broaden the cuts to lessen their impact to critical services.

         Since the session opened Feb. 13, the largest feud remained the same from start to finish: whether to use the rainy day savings account — and for how much. Edwards had wanted to use the full $120 million available, but some conservative House lawmakers said state government should pare back its spending rather than tap into the reserves at all.

         Under the deal struck and approved Wednesday, the majority-Republican Legislature is using the rainy day fund and other available revenue to plug gaps. Cuts to agencies total about $82 million.

         "It wasn't pretty, and in many respects it was harder I think than it needed to be, but we all knew that this was going to be a difficult task," Edwards said.

         Public colleges, K-12 public schools, prisons, the state child welfare agency and the TOPS college tuition program will be shielded. Some health programs will take a hit, along with the attorney general's office, the agriculture department, the Office of Juvenile Justice and spending on legislative agencies. Cuts will fall on the privatized charity hospital services and roadwork. Dollars for vacant jobs, supplies, travel and equipment will be reduced.

         But the reductions will be far less deep than agencies, advocates and people who rely on government services feared.

         Rep. Walt Leger, D-New Orleans, the highest-ranking Democrat in the House, worried that cuts falling on mental and behavioral health care would lessen services in areas struggling with unmet needs.

         "I'm disappointed that we didn't use all the resources available to take care of the shortfall, but at the end of the day a compromise is worth making," he said.

         It was the second time in the budget year that lawmakers had to close a more than $300 million deficit, and it was the state's 15th midyear budget gap in nine years.

         Taxes couldn't be raised under the session parameters. While the governor allowed lawmakers to consider fee hikes, they didn't pass or debate any.

         To get House support for a final budget deal, the Senate approved a Barras proposal that senators rejected last year.

         The legislation starts putting the administrative pieces in place to make 3 percent cuts to some fees and other dedicated sources of revenue that agencies receive. The money, estimated to be as much as $96 million next year, would be diverted elsewhere for spending. It won't help with the current-year deficit.

         Rep. Lance Harris, R-Alexandria, chairman of the House Republican delegation, described it as the building blocks of long-term budget and spending reform in the regular legislative session that starts in April.

Senators worry about the cuts that could be made.

         "In a good compromise, nobody feels 100 percent comfortable," Alario said.

         – by AP Reporter Melinda Deslatte


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