- Associated Press - Monday, May 11, 2015

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - Louisiana’s public colleges would be spared cuts, but health care services for the poor would remain on the chopping block next year under a more than $24 billion budget proposal advanced Monday to the full House for debate.

The House Appropriations Committee plugged the $615 million estimated to be raised by a series of tax changes backed by the House last week into the spending plan for the fiscal year that begins July 1. They also reduced spending on state contracts, cut money for vacant jobs and made other modest changes to drum up a few million more to shift to other programs.

Although that money was enough to offset planned higher education cuts, it wasn’t enough to close all the gaps in health care programs. About $180 million more in state financing would be needed to fill those holes.

“We leave higher ed intact; we keep on working on health care,” said Appropriations Committee Chairman Jim Fannin, R-Jonesboro.

Dollars sought by House leaders to reverse planned cuts across other government agencies, including for state parks, museums and agricultural services, also weren’t available.

The full House is expected to debate the budget May 21, with lawmakers hoping they’ll have found more ways to decrease cuts before then, either with additional tax votes or an improved revenue forecast.

“We’re still short,” Fannin said. “We needed about $950 million. We got about 70 percent of that” with the House tax votes.

The tax measures already passed face strong resistance from business organizations, and they don’t match Gov. Bobby Jindal’s guidelines for what tax changes he’d support, raising questions about whether the money used by the House to balance next year’s budget will win final legislative passage.

Meanwhile, without additional dollars, the LSU privatization deals are short of what the hospital operators say they need to continue providing the current level of services to the poor and uninsured who rely on the facilities. The estimated price tag to fill the gap is $61 million in state money, to draw down millions more in federal Medicaid financing.

In addition, LSU’s medical schools in New Orleans and Shreveport would be left with millions of dollars in insurance and retiree costs from the privatization deals. Medical school leaders say the $56 million in “legacy costs” could jeopardize their ability to educate students.

Lawmakers on the committee did add dollars to reverse Jindal’s plans to shutter a program that cares for newborn and premature babies with severe medical conditions.

“This is the difference between life and death for many critically ill babies across the state,” said Rep. Walt Leger, D-New Orleans, who successfully proposed hurricane recovery money pay for the services.

Committee members also restored $21 million for a New Orleans area community clinic program, started after Hurricane Katrina, that pays for services to low-income families at 41 sites across four parishes.

They added dollars for programs that help families of disabled children and provide assistive technology for people with disabilities. They shuffled small sums to a youth suicide prevention initiative and to the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana.

The secretary of state’s office was given more than $3 million to hold a presidential primary election in 2016, money Jindal didn’t propose in his budget recommendations.

To make the numbers work, dollars for the state’s private school voucher program were trimmed to match student projections, the opening of a juvenile detention facility would be delayed and the governor’s administration would have to cut contracts across agencies.

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