- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 14, 2017

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - In a tight vote, lawmakers in the Louisiana House spurned their GOP leaders Wednesday and backed a $28 billion-plus state operating budget that would use every dollar forecast to be available for spending.

In a 56-44 vote, the House backed an approach for the financial year that begins July 1 that, if approved when it had first been suggested by senators, could have averted Louisiana’s latest taxpayer-funded special session.

The vote was a blow to House Republican leaders who wanted to withhold nearly $100 million from the spending bill, in anticipation that Louisiana’s income predictions are too optimistic.

But it was a victory for Gov. John Bel Edwards and the Senate, who had pushed for a similar version of the budget to what won House passage. The Democratic governor praised the version backed by the House as “a responsible spending plan.”

“I appreciate the House’s work with us on this bill, and I look forward to swift passage in the Louisiana Senate,” Edwards said in a statement.

Rep. Jack McFarland, a Winnfield Republican who opposed the proposal, said he was disappointed “that once again we’re perhaps spending money that we won’t have.”

“We had an opportunity to be prudent with the people’s money, and we chose not to,” he said.

A majority of House GOP lawmakers expect the state’s income forecast will come up short, forcing midyear cuts, the situation that has happened for nearly a decade. But critics of the approach say that could unnecessarily force harmful cuts on agencies.

The Edwards administration said it will instruct agencies not to spend every dime as a hedge in case the forecast is wrong - and the House included language in the budget asking the administration to keep $60 million from agencies as a deficit-avoidance measure.

Several rank-and-file Republicans in the majority-GOP chamber voted with Democrats against their leaders. Ten Republicans crossed party lines to back the amendment sponsored by Rep. Walt Leger, the House’s top-ranking Democrat, who rewrote the spending bill to include all the dollars available. That amendment passed in a 53-50 vote.

House GOP leaders’ refusal to take up that Senate proposal helped cause the negotiation meltdown that forced lawmakers into a special legislative session. If the Senate agrees to the proposal this week and adopts it without changes, lawmakers could adjourn the special legislative session as early as Friday, before the Monday deadline.

Questioned about whether lawmakers could have avoided the special session entirely, Republican House Speaker Taylor Barras said he thought it was unlikely a similar version of the budget would have won passage on the final day of the regular session. He said the special session gave lawmakers more time to scrutinize the proposal.

“We were able to debate it fully, which is what I was hoping we could do,” Barras said.

Missing from Wednesday’s debate was Appropriations Chairman Cameron Henry, the Republican who usually handles the budget bill in the House. Close friends with U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise, Henry left the session when he learned that Scalise had been shot Wednesday morning.

The plan for the fiscal year that begins July 1 would provide full financing for the TOPS free college tuition program, give 2 percent pay raises to more than 38,000 state government workers and spend more on prisons, health services, state police and several agencies than the House GOP leaders proposed. Dollars would be allocated for a juvenile prison facility that Louisiana built in Acadiana but has never had enough money to open.

But it isn’t free of cuts. For example, mental health services would get less money, as would the private operators of Louisiana’s safety-net hospitals and clinics. The reductions to the safety-net hospitals likely would be shifted to the LSU medical schools whose doctors and students get paid to work at the facilities.

The House also gave overwhelming support Wednesday to two must-pass construction financing bills that will keep projects funded in the year that begins July 1.


House budget vote: https://bit.ly/2sBRYnx


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

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