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Louisiana senators advancing $29B budget without deep cuts

Louisiana senators advancing $29B budget without deep cuts

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — A $29 billion Louisiana operating budget proposal that avoids steep cuts to health services and college programs started advancing Saturday in the state Senate, but it assumes lawmakers will agree to raise more taxes than the House has supported.

The budget proposal backed without objection — and with little discussion — by the Senate Finance Committee relies on $540 million in tax renewals for the financial year starting July 1. The House has supported $400 million.

The full Senate will take up its versions of the budget and tax bills Sunday. Lawmakers have until Monday at midnight to reach a final deal before the special session must end.

In the Senate version of the budget, the TOPS program would fully cover college tuition costs. College campuses, the child-welfare agency, safety-net hospitals, nursing home residents and programs for the disabled would be protected. Corrections officers would get a pay raise. The foster care program would be expanded to pay for students to finish high school or until they reach 21 years old, rather than ending payments when a child turns 18.

"We want to make sure that taxpayers get the biggest bang for the buck," said Finance Chairman Eric LaFleur, a Ville Platte Democrat.

The spending plan had been worked out between senators and in talks with Gov. John Bel Edwards' office behind the scenes. LaFleur presented the proposal Saturday evening, and senators agreed with no debate.

Though the budget proposal is far from the worst-case scenarios previously debated, some areas still would take cuts to keep the numbers in balance.

On the list for reductions are the Office of Juvenile Justice, the attorney general's office, the agriculture department, the agency that oversees state parks and museums, private school aid and senior centers.

Lawmakers are in a special session called by Edwards to close a budget gap caused by expiring temporary taxes. Louisiana is expected to bring in $648 million less next year, and the Democratic governor wants lawmakers to replace that amount.

Members of the majority-Republican Legislature don't expect to approve all the money Edwards wants.

The House backed a sales tax bill that would renew one-third of an expiring 1 percent sales tax, eliminate some sales tax breaks and continue sales tax charges on business utilities.

Louisiana's state sales tax rate currently is 5 percent, dropping to 4 percent on July 1. The House-passed bill would move the rate to 4.33 percent on July 1.

The House version of the budget would force larger cuts than senators want. Lawmakers in the House proposed to cut TOPS awards by 10 percent and to shrink health spending. Health Secretary Rebekah Gee said the cut would reach $540 million with lost federal and other matching dollars, heavily hitting substance abuse and mental health services.

The Senate Finance Committee built its budget proposal off the assumption of a 4.5 percent sales tax rate. That's not how the Senate version of the tax bill currently looks, but LaFleur said those changes would be discussed on the Senate floor.

"It is from talking to members that we thought this would be the appropriate measure to fund the budget," he said.

The Senate budget proposal also assumes lawmakers will agree to divert $47 million in oil spill recovery money from state savings accounts to instead spend on general operating expenses. The House and Senate haven't approved such a move yet.

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