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La. House passes budget with proposed cuts to TOPS, safety net hospitals

BATON ROUGE, La. (KTAL) - (4/20/2018) Safety-net hospitals, nursing homes and state-run college tuition aid would take hefty cuts under a $27 billion operating budget passed Thursday in the Louisiana House.

The spending proposal now goes to the state Senate, after state representatives backed it with a narrow 55-47 margin. The advancement followed five hours of floor debate, with wide Republican support and Democratic opposition.

"We are constitutionally obligated to pass a budget, but we are not constitutionally obligated to pass this one," House Democratic caucus chair Rep. Robert Johnson (D-Marksville) told legislators shortly before the vote. "Shame on us if we do."

The proposed budget is roughly $2 billion smaller than the one passed last year. It acknowledges the state’s projected $648 million shortfall, which takes effect when temporary taxes expire July 1. The bill suggests slicing nearly $60 million — or 20 percent — from the TOPS college scholarship. The program helps roughly 50,000 college students with tuition each year.

"We are going to lie to our children once again," said Rep. Barry Ivey (R-Central), referring to numerous decisions in recent years to fund only part of the tuition program.

State health administrators claimed that proposed reductions would lead partner hospitals to rescind contracts, prompting closures in Shreveport, Monroe, Lafayette and Bogalusa. Recommended cuts to Medicaid would leave tens of thousands of nursing home residents without a way to afford housing.

"What are we doing?" Johnson added. "You voted to shut hospitals and to kick the elderly out of nursing homes."

Republican supporters argued the measure helps address the budget gap without reliance on taxes.

"This is what a responsible budget looks like," said Rep. Lance Harris (R-Alexandria), who chairs the House Republican caucus. "The state cannot spend money it doesn’t have."

But Harris claimed the current proposal does not meet the needs of the state. Still, his fellow Republicans claimed it represents a start.

"Is it a perfect budget? No, but we’ll never get a perfect budget," House Appropriations Chair Cameron Henry (R-Metairie) said. "We have to live within our means."

Henry questioned the size of the projected shortfall, noting its reduction since earlier this year. Just last week, the Revenue Estimating Conference recognized $346 million in revenue, as a result of federal tax changes. Previous estimates measured the gap near $1 billion.

"The number is getting smaller and smaller," he said.

Henry expects the spending plan will change as it moves up the legislative process.

"There will be many more versions of this bill before it gets to the governor," he said.

The budget must first win Senate approval, which Senate leaders admit is lukewarm in its current state. Both Senate President John Alario (R-Westwego) and Senate Finance Chair Eric LaFleur (D-Ville Platte) said Thursday that members may refuse to consider the budget without passing replacement revenue measures first. Such a move, under state law, would require a special session.

"I don’t need to tell the senators how inadequate this bill is," Gov. John Bel Edwards told reporters shortly after House members adjourned. "The budget that you saw today is a complete failure."

The governor said he wants to adjourn the regular session early, by mid-May, then immediately convene a special session to close the budget gap with taxes. Legislators met earlier this year to debate revenue bills, but adjourned without agreement.

"We need a special session to maintain more of the revenue that’s falling off the table," Edwards said. "The sooner the better."

House Republican leaders are sending mixed signals over whether they are willing to hold a special session on taxes. Last week, House Speaker Taylor Barras would not confirm support. Henry on Thursday said the chamber should not hold an extraordinary session at the expense of an abbreviated regular session. Harris said he sees a need for one, but would not speak for his party caucus at large.

"We do not have an official position on having a special session," the Alexandria Republican said.

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