La. budget cuts considered more manageable by state leaders

La. budget cuts considered more manageable by state leaders

BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - With the start of the fiscal year underway, more than $300 million in cuts to state agencies are now beginning to fall into place.

Overall, state leaders are describing the cuts as far more manageable than the $2 billion shortfall originally forecasted for the 2016-2017 fiscal year.

"The worst case scenario wasn't realized," said Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne. "The good news is we're not $2 billion in the hole like we started out when this administration took over, but there's still some noticeable cuts that need to be made by various departments."

Many of the state's major programs will avoid reductions thanks to new revenue generated by state lawmakers during the first and second special sessions. For example, higher education will avoid major cuts for the first time in years.

The Department of Children and Family Services will not be forced to lay off employees and may even be able to fill a few positions dealing with child welfare, according to a spokeswoman.

Earlier this spring, the state's partnership hospitals faced cuts that could force some to close. That is no longer the case. Also, none of the health waivers that help provide treatment for disabled children and the elderly will be cut.

"Overall, there were many success stories from this session and overall their effort has resulted in us being able to keep services going, which is a great thing," said Rebekah Gee, secretary of the Louisiana Department of Health (LDH).

However, there are still a litany of cuts on the horizon for various departments. LDH will take the largest hit of all money-wise with a cut totaling $105 million. Gee estimates that more than 10,000 families will be negatively impacted, including those receiving services from pediatric day health care programs.

Also, no new health waiver slots will be funded, meaning that thousands will remain on waiting lists this year.

"So we've got some positive stories here, but the negative is we're really running at an absolute minimum – not able to move services for families," Gee said.

The Department of Corrections is also forced to stomach a cut of more than $14 million. As a result, the state will no longer be able to afford to have private prisons house inmates requiring special care. Nine hundred prisoners will have to be moved from two privately run jails into the state system at a price of about $2 million.

"What that does is kind of a double whammy on the system. We've now got to suck those individuals into the state system, so ones with disciplinary problems, medical problems, mental health problems - we're going to bring them into the state level institutions," said Thomas Bickham, undersecretary for the Department of Public Safety and Corrections.

Several other agencies also forced to institute cuts. The Office of Juvenile Justice must institute a cut of $14 million. That could prevent them from opening up a new detention facility under construction in Bunkie, set to be completed in August.

K-12 public education needs to institute a cut of $24 million, though has not released details on how they will be implemented yet.

The Department of Culture, Recreation, and Tourism faces an 11 percent reduction. Earlier this spring, several museums and state parks could have been forced to close. Now, leaders hope that will not be the case.

"My staff is working very hard to make the necessary operational adjustments to avoid closing any facilities or laying anyone off. I strongly believe we
can do it unless a major and unexpected expenditure is required," Lt. Governor Billy Nungesser said in a statement. A spokeswoman indicated that sort of "unexpected expenditure" would include, for example, the impacts of a hurricane.

However, while leaders indicate that the budget may be manageable for now, another problem could be lurking on the horizon.

A leading state economist said that the taxes may not bring in as much money expected during the fiscal year that ended on June 30. That means the state could have to deal with another $200 million shortfall.

The administration has already advised agency heads to plan accordingly.

"If you can save a little bit on your own as you're going forward as a department, that helps brace for what may be the cut  coming if we do have this deficit. I hope we don't, but we just don't know," Dardenne said.

Gee indicted that any additional cuts of that magnitude could force the partnership hospitals that are currently protected to take a cut.

The tally of how much revenue was generated during the 2015-2016 fiscal year will not be finalized until this fall.

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