- Associated Press - Thursday, June 15, 2017

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - Louisiana lawmakers could end their special session early, as the Senate sought Thursday to speed passage of a nearly $29 billion operating budget without changes that would force extra votes and possibly add further days to deliberations over a spending deal.

The Senate Finance Committee voted 8-3 to send the proposal, exactly as it passed the House, to the full Senate for consideration in a Friday debate. If senators don’t rewrite or tweak the spending plan, that will be the last stop before heading to Gov. John Bel Edwards, who supports it.

Finance Chairman Eric LaFleur, a Ville Platte Democrat, noted the proposal is similar to a previous budget version backed by senators that didn’t win final passage, a spending plan that keeps most agencies and the TOPS college tuition program free of cuts without raising taxes.

“This is the same bill that we passed out a couple of weeks ago that we thought was responsible,” LaFleur said. “It was very good when we sent it out.”

But three Republicans who previously backed the similar proposal raised objections this time, about whether the bill spent too much and gave the governor too much authority to determine where to hold back spending.

“I do not subscribe to the position that we should not amend this bill just so we can go home,” said Sen. Conrad Appel, a Metairie Republican.

But Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne, the governor’s chief budget adviser, told senators, “I would suggest to you the bill should not be amended at all.”

The budget proposal narrowly passed the House after several Republicans joined Democrats in voting against the chamber’s GOP leadership. Senate leaders are concerned that changing the bill and forcing a second House vote could risk the shaky budget deal - and force the session into the final hours of its Monday deadline.

The spending plan for the fiscal year that begins July 1 would provide full financing for TOPS, give 2 percent pay raises to more than 38,000 state government workers and allocate dollars for a new juvenile prison facility to open in Acadiana. Prisons, state police, public colleges and the child welfare agency would be among those areas shielded from reductions.

Some programs would see cuts. Mental health services would get less money, as would a program for “medically fragile” children and 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.

Appel raised concerns similar to those of House GOP leaders that the budget should leave money unspent as a hedge against the possibility Louisiana’s income forecast won’t be reached.

The proposal allocates all available money, though it asks the administration to keep $60 million from agencies as a deficit-avoidance measure. Sens. Sharon Hewitt and Jack Donahue, the other Republicans who opposed the bill, had concerns about how the hold-back works.

While the operating budget was kept free of changes, a separate package of construction financing bills were tweaked Thursday by the Senate Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Committee, which could complicate the push for legislative work to wrap up Friday.

The special session was called after Edwards, the House and Senate failed to strike a spending agreement in the regular legislative session that ended last week. It was the first time the Legislature wrapped up a regular session without passing a budget since 2000.

The special session costs taxpayers an estimated $50,000 to $60,000 a day.


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

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