- Associated Press - Thursday, February 18, 2016

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - As they comb through Louisiana’s budget, state lawmakers are learning that agency cuts they made during former Gov. Bobby Jindal’s tenure may have gone deeper than the efficiencies that were described.

Jindal and his agency leaders regularly explained reductions made over eight years of state government budget cuts as doing “more with less,” improving government and streamlining without damaging programs and services.

Now, as Gov. John Bel Edwards’ administration digs into the agencies, lawmakers are hearing a different story when they’re being asked to decide how to rebalance this year’s budget before the fiscal year ends June 30.

Edwards’ cabinet secretaries who inherited the departments say the budget slashing has made it difficult to operate programs, leaving some agencies unable to perform tasks lawmakers thought they had paid for over the years.

To lawmakers gathered in a special session, the Edwards administration has been detailing staffing shortages and reduced services across agencies, department reorganizations that were designed to mask cuts and privatization programs that have cost more than projected.

Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne, the governor’s chief financial adviser and a former lawmaker, said there’s a “fiction that has been built over the last eight years, that we’re doing just fine with the money that we have.”

“We’re not going to hide the reality anymore,” Dardenne said.

Edwards and lawmakers are grappling with a budget shortfall ranging from $850 million to $950 million and only four months to close it. They’ve agreed to $60 million in cuts so far.

The Democratic governor is asking them to make at least another $100 million in cuts, use $328 million in short-term patches and raise hundreds of millions in new taxes to close the gap. Republicans, particularly in the House, have shown resistance to the tax hikes, saying they believe taxpayers want them to make deeper cuts across state agencies.

But the new agency leaders hired by Edwards, in many instances, are saying they’ve run out of efficiencies and additional cuts will hit programs and services. They’ve suggested the Jindal administration misled lawmakers about the impacts of previous reductions.

For example, Department of Children and Family Services Secretary Marketa Garner Walters told the House Appropriations Committee that the state pays so little to foster parents, it has been unable to find enough people to take in Louisiana’s foster children.

“This year we had children sleeping in our offices because we did not have places to put them,” she said.

Additional cuts, she said, would force her to furlough staff and would leave her agency only able to investigate the most serious cases of child abuse. The department oversees child protective services, the foster parent program, food stamps and the state’s welfare program.

“I am not trying to paint scare tactics. This is real. This agency has been cut and cut and cut,” Walters said.

The department has been cut from more than $1.2 billion in spending and about 5,200 workers when Jindal took office in 2008 to $717 million and 3,400 people this year.

Similar staffing reductions have hit the Department of Health and Hospitals, whose staff has been cut from more than 12,000 eight years ago to about 5,500 this year. Secretary Rebekah Gee said those reductions have harmed health services and program administration.

“We’re at a critical point that we don’t have enough people in my view to provide services in optimal ways,” Gee told the Senate Finance Committee this week. “At a certain point computers can’t do what people can.”

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


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