House GOP makes budget offer in Louisiana special session

(MGN)

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — House Republican leaders made their initial offer Tuesday for a $28 billion-plus Louisiana operating budget, calling it a good-faith effort to broker a compromise in the limited days of the special session.

The GOP-crafted proposal was advanced in a 15-6 vote by the Appropriations Committee, on a nearly party-line vote with Democrats opposed. The full House will debate the spending plan Wednesday, hoping to strike an agreement with the Senate and Gov. John Bel Edwards before the special session must end Monday.

The plan would use $100 million less than is forecast to be available for spending in the financial year beginning July 1. That’s down from $206 million House GOP lawmakers originally sought to leave unspent amid their expectations that the forecast is too optimistic and will force midyear cuts when the predictions come up short.

“We’re trying to work it all out and be responsible, to avoid those midyear cuts,” said Appropriations Chairman Cameron Henry, a Metairie Republican.

House Democrats, the majority-Republican Senate and the Democratic governor want to allocate all the money, though the Edwards administration says it will instruct agencies not to spend every dime as a hedge in case the forecast is wrong.

Those divisions remained on display Tuesday.

Republican House lawmakers said their latest proposal meets the Senate and governor halfway, but officials with the Edwards administration continued to resist the idea of holding back money, saying the offer would force unnecessary cuts.

“I would continue to suggest to you that the more responsible way to deal with the budget is to appropriate the dollars that are available,” said Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne, the governor’s chief budget adviser.

The disagreement forced lawmakers into a special session last week after budget negotiations cratered on the final day of the regular legislative session. It was the first time in 17 years the Louisiana Legislature hadn’t completed a budget in its annual regular session.

The proposal under consideration in the House would spend less than a previous Senate-backed plan on state prisons, the state police, health services and public colleges. A new youth prison in Acadiana wouldn’t open.

The House spending plan provides pay raises for probation and parole officers, but includes language objecting to salary boosts for more than 30,000 other state workers that the Senate and governor support.

Rep. Pat Smith, a Baton Rouge Democrat, disagreed with “pitting our state employees against each other by giving raises to some and not the others.” Rep. Valarie Hodges, a Denham Springs Republican, said the state shouldn’t pay for raises “based on money we don’t have.”

One thing the House and Senate don’t disagree on: Every budget proposal floated in the negotiations would fully pay for the TOPS free college tuition program, which was short-changed by lawmakers this year and forced students to pay more out of pocket.

House Republicans said even in their scaled-back spending plan, state general fund spending would grow larger next year. They said leaving money unspent could not only lessen the possibility of midyear cuts, but also shrink the size of a massive budget gap looming a year later when temporary taxes expire.

Dardenne said lawmakers “need to be realistic about what the needs of the state are.”

“You can’t simply expect that government is going to be frozen in time and that you’re not going to have to deal with the reality of inflation,” he said.

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