BATON ROUGE (USA Today Network) — Senators restored funding for nursing home residents and safety net hospitals in their first pass at next year’s budget, but cut other government agencies to the point “where they couldn’t function.”
The Senate Finance Committee’s budget cuts the general fund allocation to the treasurer, judiciary, Legislature, secretary of state and virtually every other agency by 24.2 percent.
It would also cut the popular college scholarship program TOPS by 30 percent, or about $69 million.
“That will effectively close state government,” said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Eric LaFleur, D-Ville Platte.
This week letters were sent to 37,000 Louisianans that they would lose their Medicaid coverage under the budget passed by the House and sent to the Senate. Of those, 30,000 are living in nursing homes or other long-term care residential settings.
“This budget doesn’t put at risk our most vulnerable people; it puts the people in coats and ties in the hot seat,” said Sen. Bret Allain, R-Franklin.
“If we have to make a choice then we choose life first,” said Senate President John Alario, R-Westwego.
But even as the committee gave its unanimous approval to its version of the budget, members dismissed it as unacceptable.
“It’s a pretend budget,” LaFleur said. “It would be disingenuous and a flat-out lie to say this … would provide for basic core services.”
Louisiana faces a $648 million shortfall in the budget than begins July 1 because $1.4 billion in temporary taxes expire on June 30.
Gov. John Bel Edwards said he will call lawmakers to into a Special Session later this month and ask them to raise at least $648 million in permanent taxes to close the gap.
But lawmakers had the same chance to do so in a February Special Session and declined.
“It’s important to demonstrate to the public we don’t have sufficient revenue,” LaFleur said. “We can’t fix the problem until we have a Special Session.”
“Hopefully this will send a message that we have to raise some revenue,” said Sen. Ronnie Johns, R-Lake Charles. “We all know this isn’t sustainable.”
Other senators, both Republicans and Democrats, echoed those sentiments.
“We don’t have any intent that this is the final iteration of the budget,” said Sen. Conrad Appel, R-Metairie. “This is an intermediate step. We are still coming back in a Special Session.”
The first question by Sen. Greg Tarver, D-Shreveport, to LaFleur was, “Are the elderly funded?” he said, referring to nursing home residents who will receive their eviction warning letters this weekend.
“We realize this isn’t desirable,” Tarver said, but noted the budget passed by the committee prioritizes the state’s most vulnerable.
Senate Finance members took 10 more percent from TOPS than the House budget, which had cut the program by 20 percent.
Senators approved its version of the budget over the objections of Edwards’ chief financial officer Jay Dardenne. Edwards wants the Senate to defer the budget bill until after a Special Session.
“This is a fool-hardy exercise to perpetuate a debate that’s unfixable until we go about the business of fixing it,” Commissioner of Administration Dardenne said. “The departments will be rendered impotent and you just put your fingerprints on a $96 million cut to higher education.”
Edwards spokesman Richard Carbo said the governor will veto any budget before new taxes can be added to fill the gap.
“The budget proposals before us have no chance of becoming law,” Carbo said.
The budget now goes to the full Senate, which will likely vote on it next week. It then returns to the House, where representatives there will have to decide whether to accept the changes before sending it to the governor.