- Associated Press - Friday, February 10, 2017

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - Lawmakers face a full-court press from higher education leaders, hospital administrators, advocacy groups and others trying to escape budget cuts in the upcoming special session called to close the state’s $304 million deficit.

Most have a singular message: Use the state’s “rainy day” fund to lessen the slashing.

“We’re in the process of lobbying all our legislators. We’re absolutely saying if you vote against the rainy day fund, you’re voting to significantly cut rural hospitals,” said Randy Morris, owner of a 35-bed hospital in Oak Grove and chairman of the Rural Hospital Coalition board.

In the budget-rebalancing session that begins Monday, Gov. John Bel Edwards is proposing to use nearly $120 million - the maximum allowed - from the reserve account to help close the gap in Louisiana’s $27 billion operating budget.

He’s getting resistance from some GOP lawmakers who say Louisiana should more deeply cut its spending in the budget year that ends June 30, rather than rely on a savings account to pay for ongoing programs.

Morris said if lawmakers don’t tap the rainy day account, he expects the state’s 48 rural hospitals to be on the chopping block.

He said any reduction to the financing those hospitals receive from the state could jeopardize access to health care in underserved areas and threaten facilities that are often the largest employers in the area. Already, three rural hospitals recently declared bankruptcy, according to the coalition, which says others are teetering on the edge.

“Our margin is about 1 percent on most of our rural hospitals. With any cut, some of them will survive, but some of them won’t,” Morris said.

Senate Health and Welfare Chairman Fred Mills said he’s been inundated with calls from health care groups that rely on financing from the state to provide services.

“If we don’t use the rainy day fund, they’re afraid they’re next in line to get cuts,” Mills, R-Parks, said Friday.

The calls appear to have persuaded the senator, who said he’ll support tapping the savings account “unless somebody can show me a real strategic way to cut the budget” that doesn’t harm health services.

Rep. Thomas Carmody, R-Shreveport, hasn’t decided on the rainy day fund. But he’s been lobbied by local hospital officials and college leaders urging him to consider it.

“They’re all very concerned,” Carmody said.

He said he’s worried about cuts that could threaten the LSU medical school in Shreveport and the privatized charity hospital there. But he also said he doesn’t like using “patchwork budgeting to fund the operations of the state.”

Edwards’ budget-rebalancing plan would use the rainy day fund and other reserves to protect colleges and most health care programs from cuts.

LSU System President F. King Alexander said he’s found significant support in his conversations with lawmakers for shielding campuses from slashing, after 16 budget cuts in the last nine years, including one earlier this fiscal year.

“I see the rainy day fund as legislative reserves that can help us,” Alexander said. “We have a much better chance of not getting cut, and higher education certainly would be supported more, if the Legislature uses the rainy day fund.”

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


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