‘Fresh start:’ Louisiana budget debate opens in new session

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Returning for their fourth special session on finances in 16 months, Louisiana lawmakers started Monday to try to cobble together the budget deal they couldn’t reach before the clock ran out on a regular session last week.

While the regular session ended with finger-pointing and angry words, Republican House Speaker Taylor Barras said the special session represents a “fresh start” in negotiations with the Senate and Gov. John Bel Edwards.

“I want to start today with kind of a new slate,” Barras said. “I think this is a new negotiation.”

Before the budget talks collapsed, the House and Senate appeared about $50 million to $100 million apart in striking an agreement for a $28 billion-plus operating budget for the financial year that begins July 1.

House Republicans, who make up a majority in the chamber, wanted to leave some money unspent in case the income forecast is too optimistic, hoping to avoid midyear cuts. House Democrats, the majority-Republican Senate and the Democratic governor wanted to spend every dollar available, saying otherwise agencies would have to make damaging cuts.

The competing positions were on display Monday as the House budget-writing committee began its work. Its starting point was the same proposal senators already rejected, which would leave $206 million on the table.

House GOP leaders suggested that may not be the version they advance, perhaps settling on a smaller figure of unspent cash. But Republicans defended their approach against resistance from the Edwards administration, noting Louisiana’s income forecast has repeatedly come up short.

“We’re betting on the income, and we’ve been wrong,” said Covington Rep. John Schroder, a Republican.

Rep. Steve Pylant, a Winnsboro Republican, told the administration: “You can’t keep spending money that you don’t have. You can’t keep growing government if you can’t afford it.”

GOP House members noted state general fund spending would rise next year under their smaller spending plan. Nearly all that money, however, would fully pay for the TOPS college tuition program that lawmakers short-changed this year. Other agencies would take cuts.

Barbara Goodson, deputy commissioner of Edwards’ budget office, said agencies have annual growing costs they don’t control, such as retirement increases. She said even in the larger Senate spending plan, some agencies would take reductions, but those cuts are more manageable. Goodson said the House pushed a scaled-back spending plan without specifying where to shrink spending.

“If you don’t want to fund the budget, tell us what programs you don’t want to have, what services you don’t want to provide,” she told Republican lawmakers several times.

Pylant replied: “That’s not my job, ma’am,” saying people elected Edwards to make those statewide decisions.

Agency officials and college leaders spent Monday telling the House Appropriations Committee its budget proposal would force harmful cuts.

Health Secretary Rebekah Gee said she’d have to eliminate Medicaid mental health services, scrap a program for “medically fragile” children and end her agency’s work on Zika prevention.

“These are penny-wise, pound-foolish types of decisions,” Gee said.

College leaders said they’ve taken enough hits over the past decade.

“Higher education should be the priority, not the knee-jerk response” to balancing the budget, said Monty Sullivan, leader of the Louisiana Community and Technical College System.

The Appropriations Committee will unveil its spending recommendations Tuesday. Barras expects the full House to vote on the budget proposal Wednesday, shifting the bill to the Senate for consideration. The Senate returns to work Wednesday, stymied for now because budget bills begin in the House.

The special session — which costs taxpayers about $50,000 to $60,000 a day — must end June 19. Also awaiting agreement from lawmakers are construction budget bills.

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Follow Melinda Deslatte on Twitter at http://twitter.com/melindadeslatte

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