BATON ROUGE, Louisiana — A $24.3 billion budget proposal for next year that contains fewer cuts than lawmakers had feared but still leaves public health care programs short received passage Thursday from the Louisiana House.
Lawmakers voted 65-37 for the spending plan to finance government operations in the fiscal year that begins July 1, feeling a bit more upbeat about the budget situation than when they opened the legislative session in April.
After starting the legislative session with a hefty shortfall, the House passed a series of tax changes to raise more money for state coffers. That, combined with money from improved income forecasts and other patchwork financing, would close about $850 million of the gap in the House version of the budget.
House leaders estimate lawmakers need another $150 million to address the remaining list of budget needs identified by the House and Senate.
"That's 85 percent of the issue solved by the House," Appropriations Committee Chairman Jim Fannin, R-Jonesboro, who handles the budget bills in the House, said at the start of the six-hour debate.
While he acknowledged some agencies still face cuts, Fannin added: "I'm proud to say that we have kept those essential services."
Higher education, which started the legislative session facing cuts of up to 80 percent of its state financing, would be spared slashing — a point that won praise from University of Louisiana System President Sandra Woodley, who thanked House members for making "extremely difficult decisions."
"We're not out of the woods yet, but I assure you this is encouraging news," Woodley said in a statement.
But under the budget heading to the Senate for debate, cuts still would fall across public health care services, state parks, museums and agricultural services.
Without additional dollars, the LSU privatization deals are $95 million short of what the hospital operators say they need to continue providing the current level of services to the poor and uninsured who rely on the facilities. That figure includes $36 million in state financing to draw down federal matching money.
In addition, LSU's medical schools in New Orleans and Shreveport would be left with $56 million in insurance and retiree costs from the privatization deals that medical school leaders say could leave them struggling to stay afloat.
The Democratic leader in the House, Rep. John Bel Edwards, voted against the budget bill. He said while the House version of the budget "is so much better" than the proposal submitted by Gov. Bobby Jindal, "it's not good enough."
Edwards, who is running for governor this fall, cited the health care holes and the House's rejection of his proposal to expand Louisiana's Medicaid program as allowed under the federal health care law.
"The people deserve better," he said.
Lawmakers in the House added money to cover the costs of the K-12 public school financing formula, keep open a program that cares for newborn babies with severe medical conditions, and hold a presidential primary election in 2016.
One of the largest changes made Thursday involved stripping $26 million from the Office of Public Health and reshuffling it to services for people with disabilities, community clinics, hemophilia programs and other items. Health and Hospitals Secretary Kathy Kliebert said the move would shut down inspections for school cafeterias, day care facilities, restaurants and water systems.
The budget would be balanced with $440 million in money from a tax amnesty program, one-time debt prepayment and other piecemeal funding that isn't expected to be available a year later. That's down from the $1.2 billion in short-term financing used this year, which caused much of next year's shortfall.
Action now shifts to the Senate, which is weighing what to do with the House tax bills and looking for ways to drum up new money.
Many of the tax bills face opposition from businesses that would pay more in taxes with the changes. Meanwhile, the package of tax bills doesn't meet Jindal's parameters for what tax changes he is willing to consider.
Senators are looking for loopholes to Jindal's rules, seeking to cobble together a budget and tax deal considered veto-proof.
House Bill 1: http://www.legis.la.gov
House vote: http://1.usa.gov/1IS5y6z
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