- Associated Press - Saturday, June 3, 2017

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - With less rancor than the House debate, largely united Louisiana senators Saturday backed a nearly $29 billion state budget proposal that would shield colleges, prisons and the child welfare agency from cuts by using more dollars than House Republicans want to spend.

The plan to finance state government operations in 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 several agencies than the House proposed. Dollars would be allocated for a juvenile prison facility that Louisiana built in Acadiana but has never had enough money to open.

Finance Committee Chairman Eric LaFleur, the Ville Platte Democrat who handles the budget bills in the Senate, said the proposal wouldn’t cover all the state’s needs, but would protect critical programs and services. He described it as an austere, but “really solid budget.”

“We thought it was a little bit more responsible than what was sent over” by the House, LaFleur said.

But while the proposal spends more than the House version, 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.

Passage in the Senate will kick off negotiations with the House, with lawmakers hoping to strike a deal before the legislative session ends Thursday.

Senators were near unanimous in backing their version of the budget after about an hour of discussion. They voted 36-1 for the spending plan, with only Sen. John Milkovich, a Keithville Democrat, in opposition. By contrast, the House version of the budget won passage after five hours of contentious debate with Democrats nearly united in opposition in the 63-40 vote.

Milkovich said he couldn’t support pay raises to state workers “when the state is broke” and had objections about the size of payments to retirement account managers and spending on state education bureaucracy.

“Bottom line, I would love to see us moving forward to cut scores of millions of dollars from state government that cannot be justified when the state is cash-strapped,” he said after the vote.

Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, supports the Senate version. But House Speaker Taylor Barras, a Republican, has said he doesn’t believe a budget that uses every dollar of financing available could win enough support for passage in the House.

“It’ll be a tough place to start,” Barras said.

The budget crafted in the House was smaller than the Senate version. House Republican leaders want to spend $206 million less than the state income forecast predicts will be available, as a cushion in case the forecast is too optimistic. Their aim is to keep agencies from having to make midyear cuts, which they have had to do nearly every year for the last decade.

Senators, by contrast, are proposing to spend every dollar available like the Democratic governor also recommended, saying that without it, agencies would face unnecessary cuts that could damage state services.

LaFleur said the House also didn’t fill $80 million in gaps in this year’s budget that have to be paid, debts owed to local school districts and sheriffs that house state inmates in local jails and shortfalls created by agencies’ responses to the massive summer flooding in south Louisiana. The Senate is proposing to cover those budget holes in a second financing bill.

“I don’t find that to be wasteful spending. I find that to be responsible and prudent in every way,” LaFleur said.

Also Saturday, the Senate approved a $3.8 billion construction budget bill, but a separate financing measure needed to pay for many of the projects remains bottled up in the House amid a partisan dispute.

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House Bill 1: www.legis.la.gov

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

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