Shared from the 2/21/2017 American Press eEdition

Officials hopeful of budget deal

BATON ROUGE — As time winds down on the special legislative session, Southwest Louisiana House lawmakers appeared optimistic on Monday that both chambers can reach a deal in how much of rainy day fund dollars can be used to close a $304 million budget gap.

“I think we’re very close to agreeing,” said Rep. Mark Abraham, R-Lake Charles. “I feel very good about the process.”

After spending several hours negotiating behind the scenes, House lawmakers voted 98-1 to reject the Senate amendments to House Bill 3 by Rep. Cameron Henry, R-Metairie, and send the legislation to a conference committee.

Before the vote, Henry told House lawmakers that discussions on how to fix the budget problem were “promising.” House Speaker Taylor Barras, R-New Iberia, later said the amount of rainy day fund money used could range from $90 million to $99 million.

Last week, House lawmakers voted to use $74.6 million from the rainy day fund. The Senate on Sunday voted to amend Henry’s bill and use $99 million from the rainy day fund. Both totals are less than the $119 million Gov. John Bel Edwards proposed to use from the rainy day fund. The Senate-approved measure calls for $84 million in cuts, a drop from the $115 million in cuts approved by the House. Edwards’ proposal sought $60 million in cuts.

Use of the rainy day fund requires a two-thirds vote by the House and Senate. The House Appropriations Committee will consider today Senate Concurrent Resolution 2 by Senate President John Alario, R-Westwego, to allow for the use of the rainy day fund.

The Senate on Sunday voted 32-5 in favor of the measure. Passage in the GOP-controlled House would require 70 votes, something Barras said he is still working to get secured. Some Republicans have resisted tapping into the rainy day fund to close the budget gap.

“We’re close,” Barras said. “It’s getting members comfortable with the mechanics.”

Meanwhile, House Concurrent Resolution 1, by Barras, is being considered as a possible compromise in deciding the amount of rainy day funding to be used. The legislation, approved by the House on Sunday, would call for allocating constitutional and statutory dedicated funds that flow through Bond Security and Redemption Fund to pay the debt service, starting in the upcoming fiscal year that starts July 1.

The measure states that it could allow for “approximately $96 million to be allocated for debt service payments” in the upcoming fiscal year. It also states that debt service payments in the past “have been made using only the state general fund.”

Abraham said he stood firm on wanting to protect higher education and hospitals.

“As of right now, that is done,” he said. “They’re not making any cuts. I feel good about that.”

The special session is set to end at midnight Wednesday.

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