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Wednesday, April 24, 2019

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House wants to divert fee money to help pay for TOPS

House wants to divert fee money to help pay for TOPS

Information is as of press time Tuesday morning.

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — To come up with another $100 million to help pay for the TOPS college tuition program next year, House leaders decided to divert money that people pay for some services away from the agencies providing those services.

Gov. John Bel Edwards' administration and state senators are raising concerns about the legality of the idea, their ability to use the dollars if they're diverted and the wisdom of an across-the-board cut that falls heavily on transportation, public safety and health agencies.

"This is just another way to move money around, one that we think is substantively and procedurally flawed," the governor's chief budget adviser, Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne, told the Senate Finance Committee on Sunday.

But if the Senate decides to undo the proposal, cuts could worsen for a popular college financing program in the budget year that begins July 1.

The plan, spearheaded by House Appropriations Committee Chairman Cameron Henry, would take more than 3 percent of fees paid to departments for services, along with other dedicated sources of revenue that they get from state taxes.

That could include money paid for licenses, public health services or facility inspections, for example.

The dollars would be steered to help pay off state debt next year, thereby freeing up other general tax revenue — known as state general fund money — that would otherwise have to be used for the debt payment.

Henry, R-Metairie, said it would require some agencies that have largely been shielded from cuts to share in the reductions needed to close a $600 million budget gap next year. Treasurer John Kennedy's office said the move is allowed under the state constitution.

The diversion would shift money the agencies had expected to have next year, like $4 million from the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, $2.7 million from the agriculture department, $3.7 million from the labor department, $14 million from the transportation department, $7 million from state police and $23 million from the health department.

"It's the equivalent of a cut to their departments," said Sherry Phillips-Hymel, the Senate's chief budget analyst.

Senate President John Alario, R-Westwego, worried those cuts would fall too heavily on agriculture programs, transportation projects, the state police and the legislative auditor. Other senators questioned whether the dollars would meet the legal criteria for spending on ongoing services and programs.

Dardenne said the state has tried a similar maneuver once before, and then deemed it unfeasible.

The House version of the budget assumes $100 million will be diverted but doesn't specifically detail which fees and other dedicated revenue sources would be transferred. It doesn't spell out the 3.3 percent cap. And the exact process for making the transfers isn't clear.

Hymel suggested if senators wanted to move the money as the House wants, they should pass a separate piece of legislation. But Senate Finance Committee Chairman Eric LaFleur, D-Ville Platte, has shelved his similar bill because of concerns about how to make it work.
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