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Scaled-back $29B budget wins support from Louisiana House

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Scaled-back $29B budget wins support from Louisiana House

Editor’s note: The following budget update from the Louisiana Legislative session is as of press time Friday. Things may change as the session continues.

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Lawmakers in the Louisiana House voted Thursday for a nearly $29 billion state operating budget that spurns the approach sought by the Democratic governor in favor of a scaled-back plan devised by Republicans to spend less money than available.

The 63-40 vote came after more than five hours of debate and largely fell along partisan lines, with Republicans supporting the spending plan and Democrats opposed.

GOP House leaders crafted a proposal for the financial year beginning July 1 that fully finances the TOPS college tuition program by cutting health services for the poor and that spends $235 million less in state tax dollars than the state treasury is projected to receive.

Gov. John Bel Edwards' administration and Democratic lawmakers say the smaller spending proposal is irresponsible and heartless, forcing unnecessary reductions across agencies.

"Their budget guts health care, children's services and veteran services to levels that endanger the health and welfare of the people of Louisiana," Edwards said in a statement.

The Democrats want to spend the full amount of financing forecast for next year, rather than use 97.5 percent of the state tax dollars projected. Edwards also has proposed tax hikes to raise millions more to spend on government services and programs he says have been starved of needed funding.

House Republican leaders worry the income projections are too rosy and could force cuts in the middle of the budget year if lawmakers spend the full amount, a situation that has repeatedly happened over the past decade.

“The budget will never be stabilized if you have an endless amount of midyear cuts," said Appropriations Chairman Cameron Henry, the Republican who handles the budget bill. "This is trying to budget in a manner that actually makes sense. We're trying something different. The way that we've done it before hasn't worked."

Republican leaders in the House also object to raising taxes. They say agencies can cope with their budget proposal without damaging cuts, by not filling vacant jobs, stalling planned vehicle purchases and equipment upgrades and delaying a payment to health providers in the Medicaid program.

"I think what members are tired of is all the doom and gloom when agencies are sitting on 200 vacant positions," Henry said.

Democrats said balancing the budget isn't as simple as just taking the dollars allocated to vacant jobs. They said agencies need to fill critical positions, such as hiring prison guards, health care workers and probation agents.

"How do you believe that the services for these people are provided if not through the people that work at these agencies?" asked Rep. Walt Leger, the House's highest-ranking Democrat.

Most of the money cut from the governor's budget proposal was stripped from the health department. Dollars also were removed from education programs, prisons, the child welfare agency and state police. Federal matching dollars would be lost.

Attempts to add new dollars by Democrats were rejected, including money they said was needed to avoid closure of two veterans cemeteries. Republican leaders suggested those claims were scare tactics by the Edwards administration.

Leger blasted the method Republicans used to carve out the $235 million, leaving it to the governor's Division of Administration to oversee the reductions while also adding restrictions on where agencies could cut.

"It's a transparent attempt to cut the budget deeply and hide that fact by telling the Division of Administration to do the dirty work," Leger said.

The budget bill heads next to the Senate for consideration, where it likely will get a heavy rewrite. The spending plan would spend fewer state dollars next year, but the price tag would grow because more than $2 billion in new federal dollars would be spent on Medicaid.

The House also approved a $171 million judicial budget and a $95 million budget for legislative agencies next year. Both would largely maintain the same level of financing as this year.

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