State Capitol Building in Louisiana

East Baton Rouge Parish, Louisiana, USA --- State Capitol Building in Louisiana --- Image by © Randy Faris/CORBIS

BATON ROUGE — A spending plan for the state during the upcoming 2018-2019 fiscal year was approved by the state Senate Tuesday, with several amendments to the version originally proposed by the state House of Representatives.

The changes incorporated into the state’s spending plan shifted major budget cuts to fall on state government agencies rather than health care.

The Senate vote on the budget, which is outlined in House Bill 1, was 27-10. The senators voting against the Senate’s version of the budget were Democrats, who wanted new revenue measures incorporated into the budget.

“I beg you, do not give the public false hope,” said state Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, D-New Orleans. “Do not pass this bill. We’re coming back anyway. Let’s do it right and not create this farce.”

Several state senators questioned whether they should approve a budget for the state in light of Gov. John Bel Edwards’ call for legislators to enter a special session next week. Edwards has called on state lawmakers to consider revenue-raising measures o prevent what his administration has portrayed as drastic cuts to public services.

The Senate budget proposed cuts of 24 percent to most state agencies and 30 percent to TOPS funding, while fully funding health care priorities. The Republican-led House approved a budget to cut TOPS by 20 percent and slash state spending on health care.

Senate Finance Chairman Eric LaFleur, D-Ville Platte, presented the Senate’s version of House Bill 1. LaFleur said the Senate’s version of the budget 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 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 projected revenue shortfall of some $648 million for the next fiscal year beginning July 1. The estimated budget 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 decided not to approve 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.

On Tuesday, Edwards, a Democrat, issued 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.

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,” state 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.”

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