By Devon Sanders and Kaylee Poche, LSU Manship School News Service
BATON ROUGE — The House on Thursday voted 61-37 to pass the major changes that the Senate made to the state budget to fund health care services while slashing spending on state agencies and TOPS scholarships.
The budget bill now goes to Gov. John Bel Edwards, who has called a special session that starts Tuesday to try to persuade the Legislature to raise revenue and avoid the cuts.
As a result, some legislators called the bill a “pretend budget” since some of the cuts, which include a 30 percent reduction in TOPS funding, could still be averted.
Edwards has called on legislators to extend some temporary revenue measures to cover a projected $648 million shortfall in next year’s state budget.
The budget passed by both chambers includes a 24.2 percent cut to all state agencies from the state general fund, a cut which many have said will leave the agencies unable to function.
“By passing this bill, our constituents will see very clearly laid out what is not funded,” said Rep. Cameron Henry, R-Metairie, chair of the House Appropriations Committee.
Lawmakers have been struggling to create and pass a budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1. The gap is a result of the expiration of a one-cent sales tax, which was a temporary solution to the state’s financial shortcomings.
The Republican-led House failed to pass any revenue-raising measures during a special session earlier this year, and the Legislature cannot vote on revenue-raising measures until the next special session begins.
But Henry, one of the most powerful Republican lawmakers, said on Thursday that he was in favor of raising some revenue to increase TOPS funding.
“We made a promise to TOPS students,” Henry said. “I think we should abide by that.”
While the House originally cut funding for health care, it ultimately accepted the Senate’s decision to fund health care priorities, like public-private partnership hospitals and nursing home costs for the poor. The House had proposed cutting TOPS by 20 percent, and the Senate expanded that cut to 30 percent.
Even though Henry voted last month in both his Appropriations Committee and on the House floor to cut most of the state’s funding for health services, he said after the latest vote Thursday that the services that “vitally keep people alive are fully funded,” Henry said.
“If you have to choose between TOPS and life, I think most people would choose life,” he added.
But the bill passed by the Legislature also would eliminate funding for the food stamp program in Louisiana, making it the only state in the nation without such a program, Gov. Edwards said Thursday.
The cuts also could lead to layoffs of thousands of state workers and force the state to close parks and trim back a wide range of other services, including some involving public safety.
Some legislators said they felt passing a budget before the special session would give residents false hope that the state’s financial problems had been solved.
Rep. Robert Johnson, D-Marksville, passionately addressed the floor and attempted to stall the bill. His attempt to table the bill failed 62-34.
“This budget is a pretend budget,” he said.
“We will not solve a real problem with pretend budgets and pretend solutions, because we don’t represent pretend people,” he added. “We represent real people, and they put real trust in us.”