- Associated Press - Sunday, June 5, 2016

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - With a day remaining in the regular legislative session, Louisiana’s lawmakers reached a compromise Sunday on a $26 billion state operating budget for next year that makes widespread cuts to close a $600 million shortfall.

The budget deal for the financial year that begins July 1 won final passage with a 63-38 House vote and a 35-2 Senate vote, ahead of a Monday session-ending deadline.

But the spending plan is only a first draft. Gov. John Bel Edwards is calling lawmakers into an 18-day special session Monday evening to consider tax hikes to lessen the cuts.

“We got a good result, but we still have a lot more work to do. Hopefully, we can get through that in the next couple of weeks,” said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Eric LaFleur, D-Ville Platte.

The spending plan looks largely similar to the budget drafted by the Senate, with minor adjustments to pay for a few specific items sought by the House, including programs to combat truancy, aid organ donations and help people with disabilities gain access to specialized technology.

The TOPS college tuition program would be funded at 48 percent of what is needed to fully cover eligible students. Safety-net hospitals that care for the poor and uninsured would be short. College campuses, the LSU medical schools and K-12 education would take hits, along with public safety and child welfare programs, state parks and museums.

But Medicaid “waiver” programs that provide home- and community-based services to the elderly and disabled would be shielded from slashing.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Cameron Henry said he can’t guarantee that all the safety-net hospitals and clinics would stay open under the budget deal. The money would be allocated to the state health department to divvy up among the hospitals, raising concerns among lawmakers.

“At this point, I can’t honestly tell you that every hospital is going to be funded,” Henry, R-Metairie, told his colleagues. “It’s going to be hospitals and TOPS that we’re coming back into special session for.”

Rep. Barry Ivey, R-Baton Rouge, opposed the spending plan because it contains $156 million less than needed to fully fund TOPS.

“This breaks what I believe is a commitment to students,” he said.

The budget deal doesn’t use a House plan to divert $74 million dedicated funds on which some agencies rely to other areas of the budget to help offset cuts.

The regular session must end by 6 p.m. Monday. But that doesn’t mean lawmakers then return home.

Edwards has called a special session on taxes to begin 30 minutes after the current session ends, hoping to persuade lawmakers to raise taxes to help close the budget gap. Republican leaders in the House, however, are resistant to many of the tax proposals offered by Edwards.

The Democratic governor said the budget passed by lawmakers “is further evidence that we need to work together in the next special session to stabilize our budget and fund critical programs.”

“While I appreciate the Legislature crafting a budget, we need to develop a long-term plan that is worthy of the people of Louisiana. We have critical work ahead of us over the next two weeks,” Edwards said in a statement.

Ahead of the budget deal’s passage, lawmakers settled other issues.

With a 36-1 vote, the Senate gave final passage to a constitutional amendment that would give public college management boards the ability to raise their own tuition and fees without needing legislative approval.

Higher education leaders had unsuccessfully pushed the change for years, but continued rounds of budget cuts that stripped hundreds of millions from campuses finally persuade lawmakers to back the idea. Voters would need to approve the idea in the November election before legislative authority would be relinquished.

Senators also gave final legislative passage to a proposal that would raise the adult prosecution age in Louisiana by one year, to include 17-year-old offenders in the juvenile justice system. District attorneys could still charge 17-year-olds as adults for serious crimes. A 33-4 vote sent the “Raise the Age” measure to Gov. John Bel Edwards, who intends to sign it into law.

Also heading to the governor’s desk with final votes Sunday are bills that would set up a process to lift a state moratorium on oyster leases and place new limits on state spending on public art projects.

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


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