- Associated Press - Friday, February 17, 2017

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - A proposal to cut $115 million from state spending over the remaining four months of the financial year, to help close a budget deficit, won the narrow support Friday of the Louisiana House, which chose to tap fewer reserves than Gov. John Bel Edwards wants.

The proposal, sponsored by Appropriations Chairman Cameron Henry, would cut $55 million more from the state operating budget than the Democratic governor sought, much of it from the health department.

Henry, R-Metairie, defended the measure as an appropriate way to lessen spending amid an economic downturn. He pushed back against expected criticism from department heads objecting to the reductions.

“You’ll never have an agency ever tell you, ‘Thank you for taking my money,’” he said. “We have put ourselves in the position of having the agencies drive the budget.”

The House voted 57-39 after four hours of debate on the measure, largely along party lines, with most Democrats in opposition. The vote sent the proposal to the Senate for consideration. The Senate Finance Committee will dig into the details Saturday.



“I really don’t think that this is the best this body can do. I think we can do better,” said Rep. Walt Leger, D-New Orleans, who voted against the bill. “I hope that the Senate will actually find the money that we need to provide services to the people of this state.”

Most of the difference between the House-approved proposal and Edwards‘ plan hinges on use of Louisiana’s “rainy day” fund.

Edwards wants to use the full $120 million available from the savings account, a position supported by Senate leaders and House Democrats. But some conservative House Republicans say Louisiana needs to permanently pare spending, rather than use a savings account to patch through another year - after nine years of repeated financial shortfalls.

“It’s time to put the brakes on,” said Rep. Tony Bacala, R-Prairieville.

Trying to strike a compromise, Henry proposes using $75 million from the rainy day account. But it remains unclear if the House will support using such a large amount from the fund. Tapping into it requires a two-thirds vote for a separate piece of legislation that the House hasn’t yet debated - and only 57 people voted for the budget cut bill, short of the 70 needed for a two-thirds vote.

The 10-day deficit-closing special session reached its midpoint Friday. Lawmakers have until Wednesday to pull together a final plan to rebalance the $27 billion state operating budget for the financial year that ends June 30, which has a $304 million deficit.

Edwards said he was “somewhat encouraged” because House Republican leaders have moved from objecting to the rainy day fund to supporting a bill that relies on $75 million from the account. But he said that still wasn’t enough.

“A majority of the House decided to inflict more pain than is necessary,” the governor said.

Edwards’ proposal calls for cutting $60 million from agencies, using the full $120 million available from the rainy day fund and tapping into $120 million in other available financing to fill holes. He wants to shield colleges, K-12 public schools, state prisons and the state’s child welfare agency from slashing.

Henry’s bill would cut state financing for K-12 schools and state prisons, rather than protect them. It would make larger cuts to the state health department than the governor wanted.

Edwards and Democratic lawmakers object to $17 million in cuts across agencies that Republican lawmakers said targeted money earmarked for unfilled state jobs. Opponents said taking those dollars would cut programs and services.

“This money doesn’t exist. It’s not real,” Leger said.

Rep. Mark Abraham, R-Lake Charles, said House budget analysts found 1,750 vacant jobs across state government.

“There’s always some money laying around,” Abraham said. “No one ever spends all the money they have.”

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Online:

House Bill 3: www.legis.la.gov

House vote: https://www.legis.la.gov/legis/ViewDocument.aspx?d=1022241

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

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