- Associated Press - Sunday, January 31, 2016

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - Here we go again.

As a new governor and lawmakers grapple with yet another financial shortfall, public colleges and health care services are threatened once more with deep cuts. The uninsured, elderly, disabled and students continue to be the bargaining chips in debates over how to balance Louisiana’s budget.

It’s a regular debate in state politics as lawmakers cobble together the budget, and it’s no different this time, as lawmakers weigh whether they’ll agree to tax hikes proposed by Gov. John Bel Edwards.

Chronic budget gaps leave Louisiana’s most vulnerable citizens - and the students trying to become valuable taxpayers - never on sure footing, an outcropping of financial practices regularly criticized as skewed.

In the latest iteration of Louisiana’s troubled budget saga, the Edwards administration estimates the state is short between $700 million and $800 million of what is needed to pay for everything included in this year’s budget. Only five months remain before the fiscal year ends June 30, to get it all rebalanced.

Former Gov. Bobby Jindal and lawmakers didn’t include enough money in the budget to cover the programs included. Also, Louisiana is expected to bring in less tax income than projected when the budget was built, partially due to falling oil prices. The gaps grow worse in the budget year that begins July 1, as short-term fixes used this year fall away.

Edwards plans a three-week special legislative session to begin Feb. 14, asking lawmakers to raise taxes to avoid deep cuts to state government, particularly to higher education and health care.

The governor has offered a list of tax proposals he wants lawmakers to consider, such as boosting sales taxes, raising taxes on cigarettes and alcohol, cutting tax break programs for business and increasing the income taxes charged on middle- and upper-income taxpayers.

But it’s unclear if Edwards can get enough support from a majority Republican Legislature to pass tax bills that in many instances require a two-thirds vote.

Without new revenue, the governor and lawmakers will need to cut state spending to rebalance the budget.

The problem is governors and lawmakers over the years have boxed themselves in about how and where they can make cuts. They’ve protected some budget areas over others, agreeing to dedicate certain revenue to specific items and shielding some types of spending from deep reductions. And lawmakers so far have been reluctant to undo those protections.

The bottom line? Public colleges and certain types of public health care services for the elderly and disabled are two of the least protected areas of the state budget. When cuts are needed, they are most vulnerable to the slashing.

With the latest threat of cuts, the Edwards administration asked Louisiana’s four public college systems and the state health department to devise budget-cutting scenarios.

Higher education’s target was $131 million. Health care got the same number. As expected, the proposals are grim - and clearly that’s the point, to try to rally support for Edwards’ tax plans.

Louisiana’s health department offered two scenarios for cuts of that magnitude.

Under the first, nearly all reductions would be levied on the privatized LSU hospitals that care for the poor and uninsured. Under the second, all optional Medicaid programs would be eliminated. That includes getting rid of hospice services for terminally ill patients, a program that provides services to “medically fragile” children and a long list of home- and community-based programs that help the elderly and people with developmental disabilities.

The college budget cut proposals were equally bleak.

Higher education leaders said the cuts would force widespread layoffs, summer school cancellations, class eliminations, decreased student services and degree-program closures. Some campuses said they would declare the equivalent of bankruptcy.

Until the governor and lawmakers do a better job of matching Louisiana’s annual spending to its yearly income, whether through permanent cuts or revenue increases, public colleges and health care services will find themselves repeatedly in the crosshairs of budget fights.

And the people who rely on them will never quite be certain where they stand.

___

EDITOR’S NOTE: Melinda Deslatte covers Louisiana politics for The Associated Press. Follow her at https://twitter.com/melindadeslatte

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