Senate committee budget protects higher ed and hospitals, cuts funding for public K-12 education

Senate committee budget protects higher ed and hospitals, cuts funding for public K-12 education
Senate Finance Committee (Source: WAFB)
Senate Finance Committee (Source: WAFB)

BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - With one day left in the second special session, Louisiana lawmakers still have not finalized an updated plan for next year's budget. They also have not finalized all of the tax measures.

The supplemental budget bill, HB 69, currently waits a vote on the Senate floor after the finance committee advanced its plan early Wednesday morning. That plan works to protect higher education and the state's partnership hospitals that treat the uninsured, while in exchange giving a deep cut to the K-12 public education.

Compared to the House plan, the Senate Finance budget includes a $21.4 million reduction to the MFP, leaving public school districts with an overall $38 million shortfall next year. Some lawmakers on the panel objected to that cut.

"I'm very fearful that this is really just going in the wrong direction. And I guess for me what the greater tragedy is we don't have enough money to address the problem," said Sen. Regina Barrow, D-Baton Rouge.

This sort of cut could impact teacher pay raises and also put restrictions on what schools can do in the classroom, according to Scott Richard, the executive director of the Louisiana School Boards Association.

"I don't know how to explain it any simpler. It will affect our most needy students across the state," Richard told the committee.

Overall, the plan allocates $258 million, which is approximately $26 million less than the House budget. The House plan included money that had already been allocated elsewhere in the budget, according to Sen. Eric LaFleur, D-Ville Platte. LaFleur chairs the finance committee, which handles the budget for the Senate.

The money in question came from savings from Medicaid expansion. That money was already included in the budget plan passed during the regular session.

The House passed the supplemental bill - including those double-counted dollars - Monday afternoon.

In addition to the double-counted money, the reason for the cut to MFP in part is due to how the Senate organized their priorities. That includes trying to protect higher education.

"Higher education in this state has been cut tremendously. Fifteen times, 15 times. We're not competitive around this country with other schools ," said Sen. Gregory Tarver, D-Shreveport.

Barrow offered an amendment moving money away from higher education and school vouchers to increase funding for public school districts. That plan was shot down.

Like in the House plan, TOPS is funded at approximately 70 percent by the Senate Finance Committee. That means LSU students with the scholarship could have to pay about $2,100 of their tuition next year, according to LSU President F. King Alexander. Students would still also have to cover the cost of other fees as well.

For reference, if TOPS funding is increased to 80 percent, students would pay about $1,400 of their tuition.

With just a few hours left, frustrations are rising amongst lawmakers.

"You can't choose to not raise revenue but at the same time sit and say we're not doing enough with the money that we have. You can't have it both ways," said Sen. Wesley Bishop, D-New Orleans.

Meanwhile, Senate leaders are still toying with an idea to raise more revenue next year. If that were to happen, LaFleur said increasing funding for K-12 public education would be a top priority.

The plan would involve modifying HB 50 to include a provision restricting what itemized deductions individuals can claim on their personal income tax.

While charitable donations, medical expenses, and home mortgages could still be claimed, the state income tax as well as the state and local sales tax could not.

The change would only impact upper income earners, including those making more than $100,000 per year.

It is questionable whether the House and even the full Senate would buy onto the idea. The House killed a bill which have accomplished the same change Sunday evening.

HB 50 and the supplemental budget bill will face a vote on the Senate floor Thursday.

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