BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Lawmakers in the Louisiana House reworked next year's budget proposal on Monday to protect the TOPS college tuition program, spread cuts across safety net hospitals and eliminate a state government watchdog agency.
Action in the House Appropriations Committee offered the first indication of House leaders' approach to closing a $600 million budget gap next year and solidified the dividing lines between House Republicans and Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards over finances.
The committee approved the changes in an 18-4 vote, and the full House will consider the 2016-17 budget proposal Thursday. The new financial year begins July 1. Edwards hopes to have a June special legislative session on taxes to stave off many of the cuts, but House Republicans have shown resistance to that idea.
CHANGING THE APPROACH
House leaders identified the TOPS program, which is highly popular with middle income voters, as a priority for financing.
Edwards proposed to fund only about a third of the money needed to fully pay for all TOPS-eligible students. The Appropriations Committee came up with the remaining $183 million at the expense of other state agencies, in part by carving money paid to them in fees for services.
Committee Chairman Cameron Henry said the governor placed a higher priority on the health department than higher education in his budget recommendations.
"We just balanced it a little bit more," said Henry, R-Metairie.
Edwards recommended protecting five safety net hospitals and leaving four others without state financing, saying it prioritized hospitals that are most critical to medical training programs. The committee reshuffled those dollars to instead spread them out across all nine hospitals, with each taking a cut.
INSPECTOR GENERAL ELIMINATED
The Appropriations Committee proposed to cut all financing for the state inspector general's office, which investigates fraud, waste and corruption in government.
Henry said several members believe the inspector general's duties overlap with work done by the state police, attorney general and legislative auditor. The agency's budget averages between $1.6 million and $1.9 million a year.
Inspector General Stephen Street, who's held the job since 2008, said he's generated money for the state's coffers. He said his agency investigates politically tricky cases that other agencies and elected officials don't want to touch. He suggested the public would consider it a "black eye" on lawmakers if they eliminate the agency.
"Don't you think there is duplication of service between your office and the attorney general's office?" asked Rep. Steve Pylant, R-Winnsboro.
Street disagreed: "There are cases with guaranteed blowback that elected officials are just going to shy away from."
The inspector general is appointed by the governor to serve a six-year term. He can only be removed early, if a majority of the House and Senate agree.
ATTORNEY GENERAL ON HIS OWN
Committee members proposed to give Attorney General Jeff Landry more flexibility over his own budget and less oversight from the governor's office, voting 17-6 to carve out the attorney general's office from the state's general operating budget bill. Landry's office would have its own budget bill.
Henry said the attorney general requested the move.
"He gets a number, and we tell him to go do his job," Henry said.
The Edwards' administration and some lawmakers on the committee said they don't believe the action is constitutional.
"It purports to raise the attorney general to a separate branch of government," the way the Legislature and the judiciary get their own budget bills, said Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne.
The breakaway budget bill would allow Landry's office to shift dollars among programs more easily — and to only seek legislative approval for midyear financing adjustments, rather than going through the Edwards administration.
Other than Landry, no other statewide elected official would get his own budget bill.
"The attorney general is a separate, elected constitutional officer — just like the governor," Landry spokeswoman Ruth Wisher said in a statement. "The attorney general has the additional responsibility of being independent due to the litigation coming through the Department of Justice."
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Posted on Tue, May 10, 2016
by MELINDA DESLATTE Associated Press