- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 11, 2003

BATON ROUGE, La., March 11 (UPI) — Republican Gov. Mike Foster's $16 billion proposed budget is coming under increasing fire as the Legislature prepares to begin hearings Wednesday.

The Legislature's top fiscal expert has called the proposed 2003-04 budget "disgraceful" because of $600 million in cuts, largely in health care and mental health facilities.

Legislative Fiscal Officer Johnny Rombach told the Press Club of Baton Rouge in a speech Monday that legislators should instead consider cuts in new money for schools and the so-called "slush funds."

Louisiana has been borrowing from rainy day funds to get by in recent months but Rombach said the state now faces a $722 million deficit in the upcoming fiscal year. Many states across the country are facing similar revenue shortfalls this year.

Although most state legislative sessions are already under way this year, the Louisiana Legislature doesn't open until March 31. The House Appropriations Committee will begin budget hearings on the Republican governor's budget Wednesday.

Rombach suggested that the Legislature borrow $165 million from $2.4 billion in several protected state trust funds as authorized by a newly adopted constitutional amendment. He said legislators would need to arrange for it to be paid back in five years.

"Unless we change how we do business, we're stuck," he said.

Rombach also recommended ending so-called rural and urban development funds, often called "slush funds," as a way to save $17 million. He would also save millions by firing New York investment managers and have the state handle its own investments.

Rombach would also cut $153 million in new spending Foster recommended for economic development and education programs, including $61 million in new money for the state's schools.

Foster said that would turn back the clock on recent improvements in school aid.

"This administration is the first administration to fully fund the minimum foundation program and we certainly are not backing down on that or the seven years of progress that has been made," the governor told the New Orleans Times-Picayune. "His thoughts are not reflective of the legislators he works for."

Rombach said the budget also includes about $275 million in federal money that has not been authorized by Congress as yet.

"That's crazy," he said. "This budget contains a lot of funny money. This is disgraceful and I mean disgraceful. I found one purpose for it and that would be landfill. …We are funding enhancements (new or expanded programs) and not essential programs."

The governor's budget creates a $446 million shortfall for health services and reduces spending to developmental centers for the mentally handicapped by $90 million, closing four of nine in Louisiana, Rombach said.

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