By Kaylee Poche and Devon Sanders, LSU Manship School News Service
BATON ROUGE — The Louisiana Senate on Tuesday passed the House’s proposed budget 27-10 with several amendments that shifted major cuts to fall on governmental agencies rather than health care.
But many senators questioned the point of even passing a budget when it may not go into effect if revenue is raised during the special session starting next week. Some said that passing the budget would give false hope to Louisiana residents that the state’s budget problems were over.
“I beg you, do not give the public false hope,” Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, D-New Orleans, said. “Do not pass this bill. We’re coming back anyway. Let’s do it right and not create this farce.”
The Senate budget proposes cuts of 24 percent to most state agencies and 30 percent to TOPS funding, while fully funding health care priorities. The Republican-led House had passed a budget that would cut TOPS by 20 percent and slash state spending on health care.
Senate Finance Chairman Eric LaFleur, D-Ville Platte, presented the bill, but agreed that passage would not end the state’s fiscal uncertainty.
“It would be a lie of a massive magnitude to tell the public that we have fixed the problems of the state,” LaFleur said.
LaFleur acknowledged that the cuts to state agencies would hinder their ability to function.
“I really believe that most of these departments, with a 24 percent cut, will not be able to complete their mission,” LaFleur said.
Lawmakers have been struggling to create and pass a budget, with a looming $648 million shortfall for the next 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 House failed to pass any revenue-raising measures during a special session earlier this year, and the Legislature cannot vote on any revenue-raising measures during the current regular session.
Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, issued on Tuesday a call for a special session to discuss budget and tax matters. It will begin May 22 and end by June 4.
The original deadline to end the regular session was June 4, so ending the special session then will not cost the taxpayers additional dollars.
The House budget would have slashed many Medicaid programs, funding for public-private partner hospitals and graduate medical education programs to compensate for the shortfall.
In response to those proposed cuts, the Edwards administration sent over 37,000 letters to Medicaid recipients who would not be eligible for the programs they were enrolled in if the House’s budget became law. Twenty thousand of the recipients were individuals who would no longer receive funding to remain in nursing homes.
The decision to send the letters sparked controversy throughout the state. Many Republican lawmakers said the letters were premature and simply a “scare tactic” since the Legislature could raise revenue in the upcoming special session to avoid some of the proposed cuts.
But Health Department officials and some Democrats argued that the state had a responsibility to send the letters to give residents and their families time to make plans in case the cuts to Medicaid programs do go into effect.
These same arguments emerged Tuesday during the budget debate.
“I think we were all shocked by that letter,” Sen. Michael Walsworth, R-West Monroe, said. “I was disappointed by it.”
But despite many concerns regarding both the content of the proposed budget and the message it could send to state residents, the Senate’s version of the bill passed with all 10 votes in opposition from Democrats.
In his closing, LaFleur expressed his frustrations with the inability of the Legislature to come up with a balanced budget the last few years.
“It’s just such poor public policy,” LaFleur said. “You wouldn’t even run your own home this way. You wouldn’t be able to get a loan. You wouldn’t be able to get anything.”