BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - A bill that would force the state to reduce contracts enough to fully fund TOPS is heading to the House floor after advancing out of committee. With a vote of 15-5, the House Appropriations Committee advanced HB 74 Monday with an amendment that require the state to cut the contract budget by approximately $183 million.
"Let's put some money where our mouth is and cut some contracts," said bill sponsor, Rep. Jerome Richard, I-Thibodaux. "Rather than come to special session, which I know is coming, I would rather try cutting some contracts before anything else and we can. This is $15 million on 35 contracts. $15 million's not much, but I can get to $100 million easy."
Originally, Richard recommended cutting the overall contract budget by 10 percent. The administration would be able to decide how to divvy up those cuts. The bill was later amended to only cut the amount required to fund TOPS.
During the debate, Richard told the committee that the state has more than 23,000 contracts. As part of his presentation, he introduced a list of more than 30 contracts he believed could be cut or reduced.
The contracts ranged from one with the Harmony Center, which is a transitional residence facility, to another that provides for personal care attendants at shelters during declared emergencies. Others provided legal and counseling service.
Many Democrats on the panel objected to these recommendations.
"What's on our list affects all the very disenfranchised folks in our communities - our elderly, our disabled, our children and healthcare for just about everybody," said Rep. Pat Smith, D-Baton Rouge.
Still, many Republicans argued that the committee was closing the door on too many options by not considering the more than $4 billion in healthcare contracts.
"We're slowly whittling down our options simply because it's the way we used to do things and that's the whole point of us being here is to do things differently," said Committee Chairman Rep. Cameron Henry, R-Metairie.
After the governor announced his updated budget proposal, Henry joined others in pledging to fund TOPS, even if that meant deeper cuts to other state agencies.
Eventually, the committee settled on the amendment requiring $183 million in cuts. Smith once again objected, telling the committee that she feared that they were restricting funding for valuable programs in order to fill the TOPS budget.
"My concern is yes, TOPS is important, yes, but I think that we have other things that are just as important as TOPS," Smith said.
Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne, who announced Monday morning in a Senate committee that the budget shortfall is less than expected due in large part to savings in the Department of Health and Hospitals, said that attempting to cut contracts by that much may be infeasible.
"I don't know where we're going to find $185 million of savings in contracts. We've been scouring, we've been talking to agencies. A lot of agencies have taken cuts by reducing contracts or eliminating contracts that they don't think they need anymore," Dardenne said.
The Edwards administration is calling for a second special session in order to raise revenue to fill the remaining budget gap.
The bill now heads to the House floor for consideration.