- Associated Press - Friday, May 13, 2016

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - The Louisiana House backed a nearly $26 billion state operating budget Friday that would prioritize the safety net hospitals for the poor next year, while spreading cuts across the TOPS college tuition program and state agencies.

Cuts to parts of the budget are required because the state faces a $600 million shortfall in the financial year that begins July 1.

The approach crafted by lawmakers over two days of House debate wasn’t favored by Republican House leaders who instead wanted to protect TOPS. But a bipartisan mix of House members refused Friday to shuffle more dollars to the tuition aid program before sending the budget bill to the Senate for consideration.

Despite the TOPS concerns, House leaders joined their colleagues in voting 82-17 for the spending plan for the 2016-17 financial year. Appropriations Committee Chairman Cameron Henry, who opposes TOPS cuts, urged support of the budget proposal.

“We have a long way to go, members. There’s no need for anybody to get too worked up,” said Henry, R-Metairie.

The Senate traditionally does a heavy rewrite of the House version of the budget bill.

The House spent more than a dozen hours over two days haggling over how Louisiana should spend its available money. The largest dispute was over whether the TOPS program and the safety net health services - once run by LSU but now largely privatized - would share in cuts along with other state agencies.

As the proposal heads to the Senate, TOPS would be $72 million short of the nearly $300 million needed to cover all 51,000 eligible students. The safety net hospitals and clinics wouldn’t take a cut.

Rep. Jay Morris, R-Monroe, tried Friday to shuffle $36 million more to TOPS.

“I recognize we have a limited number of dollars with which to fund all of state government,” Morris said. “I think this is an appropriate way to split it.”

Others said the hospitals - and the medical schools that rely on them for their training programs - should rank higher. They worried that with cuts, the facilities could close entirely.

“We can’t deliver our babies and we can’t save their lives for the opportunity to go to college if you cut our hospitals,” said Rep. Malinda White, D-Bogalusa. Her voice rising, she added: “For everyone in here who claims to be pro-life, this is your time to stand up and be pro-life.”

Rep. Rob Shadoin, R-Ruston, described his son’s treatment at the privatized LSU hospital in Shreveport after a critical head injury.

“For this session, at this time, the priority of health care and our (safety net) hospitals takes precedence over TOPS,” he said. “We’re going to fund TOPS, maybe not at the level that some people want, but it’s not going away. The hospitals on the other hand might.”

Morris bristled at suggestions his proposal could harm people’s health.

“This is not an amendment to hurt people. It’s to be fair in the allocation of our state dollars,” he said. “I’m simply doing what the majority of the people in my district want.”

His proposal to reshuffle the dollars failed. Forty-two lawmakers supported it, while 57 voted against it.

Gov. John Bel Edwards had proposed to leave TOPS with less money than the House budget proposal. He also only proposed to pay for five of the nine safety net hospital deals.

The House came up with extra money for TOPS and the hospitals by cutting deeper across agencies, including by diverting some departments’ revenue from fees for services to instead pay for other items in the budget.

As the budget heads to the Senate, K-12 education, public colleges, state parks and a wide array of government programs would take hits. The Edwards administration said the House reworking of the budget could shutter some health programs for the elderly and disabled and create problems for the state prisons system.

Edwards wants to hold a June special session on taxes to raise additional money to stave off cuts. Republican House leaders have shown resistance to the idea. As he thanked the House for its “hard work” on the budget, Edwards returned to the idea of a special session.

“It is my hope that we can continue to work together during the next special session to explore revenue options that would allow us to fully fund TOPS next year, as well as the life-saving services that the citizens of Louisiana rely on us to protect.”

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House Bill 1: www.legis.la.gov

House vote: http://1.usa.gov/27kCi49

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Follow Melinda Deslatte on Twitter at http://twitter.com/melindadeslatte

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