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Wednesday, June 26, 2019

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Louisiana lawmakers send Edwards a budget he doesn't want

Louisiana lawmakers send Edwards a budget he doesn't want

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — A divided Louisiana House sent the governor a $28.5 billion operating budget Thursday that contains steep cuts to education, public safety and social services programs and establishes the gaps lawmakers will debate filling in a special session on taxes starting next week.

Gov. John Bel Edwards didn't want the spending plan for the financial year that begins July 1 to reach his desk. But House lawmakers gave it final passage with a 61-37 vote, leaving the Democratic governor to decide whether he'll veto the measure or let it linger through the special session.

Republicans largely supported the bill, while Democrats voted in a near-bloc against it.

The House backed the Senate budget version, which keeps nursing home residents from eviction and safety-net hospitals operating. But to keep the budget balanced and account for expiring taxes, lawmakers would slash spending deeply across other agencies.

Appropriations Chairman Cameron Henry, the Metairie Republican who handles the budget in the House, urged support. He said the document will show constituents where cuts would fall, as they determine if they want lawmakers to pass taxes.

"Now it becomes real," Henry said. "The priorities aren't driven from inside this building. They're driven from what you hear when you go back home."

Edwards said the budget would be devastating. He wants lawmakers to pass $648 million in taxes to stop the cuts, which are driven by the loss of temporary taxes set to expire July 1.

The TOPS program would cover only 70 percent of college tuition. Louisiana's food stamp program would end because the state couldn't afford to administer it. Meat inspections done by the agriculture department would cease. Oversight of the state's veterans’ cemeteries would shutter. Parks and museums would close. Inmates would be booted from local sheriff's jails and sent to overcrowded state prisons. Financing for college campuses would be slashed.

House Democratic leader Robert Johnson urged rejection, saying lawmakers should wait until the special session that opens Tuesday to craft a budget.

"We have a real problem. But we will not solve a real problem with pretend budgets, with pretend solutions. Because we don't represent pretend people," said Johnson, of Marksville.

Henry said lawmakers can return next week to offset gaps.

"Do I think we need to raise some money? Yes, I think it's time we do that," he said, singling out TOPS as an area he thinks need more money.

Senators who crafted the budget said they didn't want it to take effect as is, but to demonstrate the need for more money. They said they prioritized life-saving services for people who are elderly and developmentally disabled, who had been slated to take deep cuts to their programs in the initial House version of the budget. They also refused the House proposal that would have shut down the safety-net hospitals.

The health department is one of the only agencies that would get more money next year, under the budget headed to the governor.

About $1.4 billion in temporary taxes passed by lawmakers in 2015 and 2016 to plug budget holes are expiring with the start of the new budget year. With other tax offsets, Louisiana is estimated to get $648 million less in general tax dollars next year than this year.

A February special session on taxes ended in collapse, with no dollars raised to offset cuts, amid partisan disputes.


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