- Associated Press - Friday, June 3, 2016

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - Lawmakers in the Louisiana House on Friday refused to agree to the Senate’s rewrite of next year’s $26 billion budget.

Instead, the House voted 102-0 to have a six-member conference committee negotiate behind closed doors.

Appropriations Committee Chairman Cameron Henry said the two chambers are “not that far off” in reaching a deal for a spending plan for the financial year that begins July 1.

But Henry, R-Metairie, said House members had concerns about some of the items removed by senators, including dollars for a truancy program, technology assistance for the disabled and the TOPS college tuition program. He also questioned whether some of the dollars earmarked by the Senate were really available for spending.

Amid concerns that the two sides couldn’t reach terms and the budget would stall entirely, Henry pledged that a spending plan would be brought to a final vote before the Monday end of the legislative session.

“Whether I like (the version) or not, we will have a budget by the time we leave here Monday,” Henry said.

Whatever emerges and may gain final passage is expected to largely be a first draft of the state operating budget. Gov. John Bel Edwards has called a special session on taxes - scheduled to start 30 minutes after the current session ends - to raise money to lessen cuts.

Lawmakers will rewrite the budget to include any money raised during that special session, and they could reshuffle the spending plans entirely.

The Senate budget proposal would provide 48 percent of the financing needed to fully pay for all students eligible for TOPS and would cut spending on the safety-net hospitals that care for the poor and uninsured. But the Medicaid “waiver” programs that provide home- and community-based care for the elderly and disabled would be spared from cuts.

The House version would provide more money to the safety-net hospitals, less money to the waiver programs and about three-quarters of the money needed for TOPS.

In both versions, higher education and K-12 public schools would be on the chopping block, along with public safety and child welfare programs.

To come up with the additional TOPS money, House members agreed to make across-the-board cuts to some fees and other dedicated sources of revenue that agencies receive, and divert the money elsewhere.

Senators didn’t believe the diversion was legal and reversed it.

But House members again pushed for the reshuffling of that money, passing a resolution sponsored by House Speaker Taylor Barras, directing the treasurer’s office to use $74 million of that money to pay state debt. The maneuver would free up general tax dollars to help shore up the budget elsewhere.

Barras, R-New Iberia, said the move is constitutional, a position echoed by Treasurer John Kennedy.

“If the governor wants to avoid raising more taxes and he wants to fund TOPS and the hospitals, this is clearly a way to do it,” Kennedy said.

Whether senators will agree remains unclear.

“We do have a little more sales work to do,” Barras said.

Edwards said the maneuver doesn’t address the shortfall, but rather simply moves money around and creates new gaps in the agencies where the dollars are removed.

“It doesn’t strike me as a good way to go about budgeting for the state,” he said.

If the House and Senate tell the treasurer to move in different directions, Kennedy’s not sure what he’ll do.

“I’m going to cross that bridge if we come to it. My lawyers are looking at that right now,” he said.

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


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