Most of Gov. Jindal's plan to close midyear budget gap gets backing from state lawmakers

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BATON ROUGE, Louisiana — State lawmakers on Friday criticized but did not reverse nearly $61 million in cuts that Gov. Bobby Jindal levied across state agencies to close a midyear deficit.

More than 135 state workers will be laid off. Open hours at state museums and parks will shrink. Three state historic sites will close. Plans to expand a program that provides home-based aid to people with developmental disabilities will be scrapped. Fewer dollars will be spent on transportation supplies, drug abuse education and law enforcement training.

Members of the Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget raised objections to several of the reductions over the five-hour discussion about rebalancing this year's $25 billion budget to account for the impact of falling oil prices.

But individual lawmakers couldn't get enough support from their colleagues to derail any cuts amid warnings that smaller reductions now would only mean deeper slashing next year, when the state faces a $1.6 billion budget deficit.

"Anything that you take off the table today simply exacerbates the cuts that are inevitable in the (next year's) budget," said Commissioner of Administration Kristy Nichols, the governor's chief financial adviser.

Louisiana's income projections were lowered by more than $103 million last month, because of the worse-than-expected per barrel price of oil. It's the second deficit to emerge in the current fiscal year that ends June 30.

To rebalance the budget, Jindal intends to cut state spending by $61 million and use $43 million in piecemeal financing.

While lawmakers stopped none of the cuts Friday, they did stall part of the governor's stopgap funding plan, objecting to $14 million of the fund shifts, including a proposal to move $6 million from road work to instead pay for state police operations. The Jindal administration said it will come up with other ideas to fill that remaining gap.

Senate Transportation Chairman Robert Adley said dollars from the state's gasoline tax were intended for highway repairs and improvements, not state troopers.

"The public's going to ask what happened to my roads and why did you take all the money?" said Adley, R-Benton.

Several lawmakers criticized the shelving of plans to expand health care programs that provide home- and community-based care for the elderly and people with developmental disabilities. The decision keeps more than 1,200 people from getting services.

"How can you promise that to people and only take it away a few months later?" said Darla Louviere, who attended Friday's hearing to oppose the cut. Louviere, from Iberia Parish, said her 7-year-old son has been on a waiting list for services since he was an infant.

Questions also were raised about the extent of cuts falling on agencies run by Louisiana's statewide elected officials, the only offices that have announced layoffs to cope with the slashing. Agriculture Commissioner Mike Strain said the elected officials' agencies represent less than 3 percent of the budget but bore 16 percent of this round of reductions.

"We have reached that point of diminishing returns," Strain said. "I cannot fight fires without firefighters or fuel. I cannot inspect without inspectors."

Rep. Patricia Smith, D-Baton Rouge, said Jindal isn't doing enough to share in the cuts. She criticized the governor's office for only taking a reduction of $10,000 — less than one-tenth of 1 percent of its budget.

"I'm flabbergasted by that, and I believe that as a leader, the governor should lead by example," she said.

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