- Associated Press - Thursday, May 26, 2016

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - Gov. John Bel Edwards’ administration asked state senators Thursday to scrap all the changes made to next year’s nearly $26 billion budget by their colleagues in the House.

“We ask you to consider starting over,” Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne, the governor’s chief financial adviser, told the Senate Finance Committee, asking it to strip the House changes “in their entirety.”

On Monday, senators are planning to rework the budget proposal for the financial year that begins July 1 and close a $600 million gap.

Dardenne said the House version improperly diverts fees that people pay for services away from agencies providing those services. He also raised concerns about how cuts would affect public safety, coastal restoration and health programs that care for the elderly and disabled.

If senators use the Edwards proposal, the TOPS college tuition program will face steeper cuts than the House recommended and some of the safety net hospitals and clinics that care for the poor and uninsured will be left without state financing.

Sen. Bret Allain, R-Franklin, worried about the reductions that would fall on TOPS under the governor’s proposal, which would only pay about one-third of the nearly $300 million price tag needed to cover all eligible students.

“The governor has made it clear he does not feel it’s appropriate to fully fund TOPS at the expense of our (health care) programs,” Dardenne said.

Edwards wants to call lawmakers into a tax special session immediately after the current session ends June 6, to raise more money to stave off cuts, including to TOPS. Republican House leaders have shown resistance to the idea, and Allain suggested Dardenne and lawmakers shouldn’t assume a special session will bail out the budget.

“I don’t know if there will be additional revenue coming in this special session,” Allain said.

The House version of the budget proposed to cover about 75 percent of TOPS. It also includes more money for the safety net hospitals than Edwards proposed.

But to come up with money for that and some other favored programs, House leaders reshuffled dollars in a way that Dardenne described as “inappropriate and ill-conceived.”

The plan, spearheaded by House Appropriations Committee Chairman Cameron Henry, would take more than 3 percent of fees paid to departments for services, along with other dedicated sources of revenue that they get from state taxes. That could include money paid for licenses, public health services or facility inspections, for example.

The dollars would be steered to help pay off state debt next year, thereby freeing up other general tax revenue - known as state general fund money - that would otherwise have to be used for the debt payment.

The Edwards administration and state senators have questioned the legality of the move, and Dardenne said the across-the-board fee cut to agencies falls heavily on transportation, coastal protection, public safety and health agencies.


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

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