State budget fix could come down to one crucial vote

John Alario, Tony Bacala, and Lance Harris (Source: WAFB)
John Alario, Tony Bacala, and Lance Harris (Source: WAFB)

BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - The outline of a deal to fix the state's $304 million shortfall exists, but the question remains as to whether enough members of the House will vote for it.

The sticking point remains the Rainy Day Fund, with lawmakers are divided on about how much to use. Rep. Cameron Henry, R-Metairie, said it may all boil down to a difference of about $9 million from the state's savings account.

The Senate, Governor, and Democrats are all currently calling for $99 million in state savings in hopes of sparing things like higher education, K-12 schools, and the Department of Corrections from cuts. Over the weekend, Corrections Sec. Jimmy LeBlanc said that deep cuts could force him to decide between releasing more than 2,000 prisoners or letting go of 400 employees.

"You end up cutting more healthcare or things we don't want to get into, the Department of Education, Corrections, things that are important in this state," said Senate President John Alario, R-Westwego, who is among those pushing for $99 million in Rainy Day dollars.

However, many Republicans are not comfortable with using that much of the Rainy Day fund. They only want to use $90 million at most, according to House GOP Chairman Lance Harris, R-Alexandria. Some do not want to use any savings at all.

This could make unlocking the $99 million or even the $90 million difficult. Using money from the Rainy Day Fund requires a two-thirds vote of both the Senate and House. The Senate has already approved $99 million, but the votes may not be there in the House.

"Ninety-nine is tough. I think that's going to be a sticking point for a number of folks," said House Speaker Taylor Barras, R-New Iberia.

Earlier in the day Tuesday, the Senate Finance Committee moved along a resolution sponsored by Barras that would shuffle money around, essentially amounting to a cut to everything from public colleges and TOPS, to transportation funding next fiscal year and every year thereafter.

Getting that bill through the full Senate on Wednesday is key, as many House Republicans see it as a trade for using the Rainy Day Fund. In other words, they will agree to use one-time money now to clear-up the shortfall, provided there is a guaranteed cut in place for the years going forward.

However, many in the Senate, including President Alario, expressed discomfort about the resolution. Barras said they could back-fill some of the cuts, including those to higher education. However, Alario asked where the money to back-fill it would come from.

The House Appropriations meanwhile sent the Rainy Day Fund bill to the House floor without action. It will be debated by the committee of the whole Wednesday, February 22.

Lawmakers must reach a deal no later than midnight.

Copyright 2017 WAFB. All rights reserved.