Shared from the 2017-06-17 American Press eEdition

SPECIAL SESSION ENDS

Budget deal victory

Most agencies spared cuts; TOPS fully funded

BATON ROUGE — A $28 billion-plus Louisiana operating budget won final legislative passage Friday, a week later than expected, after a stalemate in the spending negotiations forced lawmakers into a special session that concluded within hours of the budget’s passage.

With a 26-9 vote, the Senate sent the budget bill to Gov. John Bel Edwards, who supports it. Later in the afternoon, the House gave the last votes needed to approve a $3.8 billion construction budget and the financing bill to pay for the projects.

The special session ended a few days ahead of its Monday deadline.

Edwards said reaching a budget deal “was much harder than it needed to be, and it certainly took longer than was necessary.” But he praised the deal that emerged, which sidelined the pared-back spending plans sought by a majority of House Republicans.

“This is a prudent budget. It is a conservative budget. And I am proud of that,” the Democratic governor said.

Senate leaders successfully worked to avoid rewriting or tweaking the operating budget, so it didn’t need a second vote in the House after it narrowly won support there against the wishes of the House GOP leadership.

‘This is a prudent budget. It is a conservative budget. And I am proud of that.’
Gov. John Bel Edwards
Reacting to $28 billion-plus state operating budget

The spending plan for the fiscal year that begins July 1 will keep most agencies free of cuts and fully fund the TOPS free college tuition program. More than 38,000 state government workers will get 2 percent pay raises, and dollars will be allocated for a new juvenile prison facility that had been vacant to finally open in Acadiana.

Prisons, state police, public colleges and the child welfare agency will be among those areas shielded from reductions. It’s the first time college campuses will be spared state financing cuts in nearly a decade.

Some programs will see reductions. Mental health services will get less money, as will a program for “medically fragile” children and the private operators of Louisiana’s safety-net hospitals and clinics.

Nearly all the budget’s opponents in the House and Senate were Republicans, including House GOP leaders, who worry the bill spends too much money and could set Louisiana up for another round of midyear cuts.

At issue is the reliability of the state income forecast. When revenues come up short of projections, agencies must make midyear cuts, a situation that has repeatedly occurred over the past nine years. Some Republicans believe that will happen again.

“I philosophically do not agree with spending all of our projected revenue when we have 30 years of history that shows us we are always off,” said Sen. Sharon Hewitt, a Slidell Republican.

The governor agreed to language requesting that his administration withhold $60 million from agencies, as a deficit-avoidance measure.

Republican Sen. Conrad Appel said the budget does nothing to shrink spending to “soften the landing” of a more than $1 billion budget gap that hits a year from now.

“I’m going to vote no. It’s not because it’s a bad budget. It’s because it’s a bad budget in our times,” said Appel, of Metairie.

Sen. Norby Chabert, a Houma Republican, supported the budget, saying: “It’s just like me, far from perfect, but I’m trying.”

Backers praised the bill for not using patchwork funding to pay for ongoing services.

“This is the first budget in a long time that is free of gimmicks,” said Sen. J.P. Morrell, a New Orleans Democrat.

With a unanimous vote, senators also gave final passage to a bill filling $80 million in budget holes — in prisons spending, education funding and other areas — before the current financial year ends this month.

The special session was called after Edwards, the House and Senate failed to strike a spending agreement in the regular legislative session that ended last week. It was the first time the Legislature wrapped up a regular session without passing a budget in 17 years.

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