- Associated Press - Thursday, May 12, 2016

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - The Latest on the legislative budget negotiations (all times local):

9 p.m.

In the struggle over how to balance next year’s budget, House lawmakers have narrowly chosen the safety net hospitals over the TOPS free college tuition program.

Lawmakers voted 49-43 Thursday night to take $72 million from the TOPS program to instead fully fund hospitals across the state that care for the poor and uninsured.

That would leave the free college tuition program short of the money needed to pay for all TOPS-eligible students in the 2016-17 school year.

The issue of which program to fully finance in the upcoming budget year that begins July 1 is one of the central debates of the legislative session, as lawmakers try to close a $600 million shortfall.

The House budget debate is expected to continue Friday.

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8:30 p.m.

Health and Hospitals Secretary Rebekah Gee told House lawmakers that the budget proposal they are considering would end all of Louisiana’s safety net hospital deals.

Appropriations Committee Chairman Cameron Henry, who led the crafting of the budget proposal, suggested the Edwards administration made the cuts appear worse than they would be.

He said health department officials said the reductions would hit programs that are particularly sensitive to lawmakers “for shock effect.”

The discussion came during hours of House budget debate Thursday.

The Edwards administration proposed to finance five safety net hospital agreements that provide care for the poor and uninsured - and leave four without state money. The House budget proposal instead would spread cuts across all nine safety net hospital contracts.

Gee said with that change, “none of them are viable.”

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3 p.m.

The House has agreed to split Attorney General Jeff Landry’s office into a separate budget bill that will give the governor less oversight over his spending.

Lawmakers voted 69-26 Thursday for the breakaway budget bill, which was requested by the attorney general.

Critics say the move is unconstitutional. Gov. John Bel Edwards has threatened to veto the measure if it passes.

Landry defended the move on the House floor, telling lawmakers that he’s a “statewide constitutional officer” who shouldn’t fall under the governor’s oversight.

The breakaway budget bill would allow Landry’s office to shift dollars among programs more easily - and to only seek legislative approval for midyear financing adjustments, rather than going through the Edwards administration.

Other than Landry, no other statewide elected official would get his own budget bill.

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10:40 a.m.

Louisiana’s income forecasting panel has decided against making changes to the state’s revenue estimates, after economists said little had changed to brighten the budget picture.

That leaves lawmakers to continue grappling with a $600 million budget shortfall for next year.

The Revenue Estimating Conference heard a bleak update about Louisiana’s declining jobs numbers and its spill-out effect across tax collections.

The Legislature’s chief economist, Greg Albrecht, says the state has had employment declines since September. He says he believes the state has “bottomed out” but the recovery will be a “slow climb.”

Economists suggested nothing has changed enough on the economic front to make significant changes to income projections. The conference agreed.

The conference includes the governor’s chief budget adviser, the Senate president, the House speaker and an independent LSU economist.

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10:20 a.m.

Lawmakers in the Louisiana House are expecting a long day as they debate how to craft next year’s budget and close a $600 million shortfall.

The biggest disagreement for the financial year that begins July 1 centers on whether to prioritize the TOPS free college tuition program and give it full funding at the expense of health services for the poor, elderly and disabled.

That’s the approach the House Appropriations Committee took, led by its chairman, Republican Rep. Cameron Henry.

The committee came up with the nearly $300 million to pay for all TOPS-eligible students next year. That was done at the expense of other agencies, including a hefty hit to the state health department.

Gov. John Bel Edwards called the approach irresponsible.

House budget debate begins Thursday afternoon.

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