- Associated Press - Monday, February 20, 2017

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - Lawmakers edged closer Monday to a deal for closing Louisiana’s $304 million budget deficit, with House and Senate leaders saying the broad outlines of a compromise are settled if they can get rank-and-file members to agree.

“Neither of one of us likes it, so that’s got to be a good deal,” Senate President John Alario, R-Westwego, said about the tentative agreement between the Senate and House.

House Speaker Taylor Barras, R-New Iberia, described the closed-door negotiating sessions, which involved lawmakers from both chambers and Gov. John Bel Edwards, as “some good progress.”

The plan, outlined by Barras and Alario, would use between $90 million and $99 million in money from Louisiana’s “rainy day” fund to help lessen cuts over the remaining four months of the financial year. Other available dollars would be used to plug gaps. And cuts to agencies would range from about $80 million to $90 million.

How those cuts would be divvied up in the $27 billion state operating budget remains unclear, though it appears public colleges, prisons, the state child welfare agency and the TOPS college tuition program would be shielded from reductions.

Hurdles for a deal to be approved by the Wednesday end of the budget-rebalancing special session remain. Several bills need to win final passage, with a key vote needed in the House to authorize use of the rainy day fund.

Barras has to persuade 69 other House members to agree to tap into the savings account, a two-thirds vote which the speaker acknowledged will take some work.

“We’re close,” Barras said.

Some conservative lawmakers in the majority-Republican House have balked at using the rainy day fund, saying state government should instead pare back its spending and cut more deeply to account for an economic decline in Louisiana.

More than two-thirds of senators already have voted to use the rainy day dollars.

To make the deal work, the Senate agreed to pass Barras’ legislation to make across-the-board cuts to some fees and other dedicated sources of revenue that agencies receive, starting in the financial year that begins July 1 and budget years after that. The money, estimated to be as much as $96 million next year, would be diverted elsewhere in the budget for spending.

Alario dislikes the legislation, saying he and other senators don’t agree with taking dollars earmarked for road projects and TOPS and reshuffling them elsewhere.

“We don’t like it, but for the common good we’re trying to work it out, and I think we will,” he said.

Besides where cuts will fall, a few other details need to be worked out - particularly the precise amount of rainy day fund money to be used.

Alario said it would be the full $99 million already approved by the majority-Republican Senate. Barras said it would be in the range of $90 million to $99 million.

The Democratic governor had wanted to use $119.6 million from the rainy day fund, the full amount available for spending. But Edwards spokesman Richard Carbo said the governor believes the $99 million backed by the Senate is “an acceptable compromise.”

Democrats in the House agree with the governor and have said they’ll fight efforts to decrease the dollars taken from the savings account.

“Using anything less than $99 million of the $119 million available in the rainy day fund will inflict too much suffering on real people in Louisiana,” said Rep. Gene Reynolds, D-Minden, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, in a statement.

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


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