TOPS, La. govt. agencies take a hit next year in governor's budget proposal

BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - The governor's proposed budget for next year includes cutbacks to several Louisiana agencies and programs, including the TOPS scholarship program.

"This is obviously not the budget we would like to propose to you," said Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne, who presented the plan to a panel of lawmakers Thursday.

The governor's proposal funds TOPS at around just 70 percent - the same level as Fiscal Year 2016-2017.

"It will be at the top of the list of items to be funded in the event that new revenue is recognized," Dardenne added.

The budget plan takes into account a projected $440 million shortfall for the upcoming fiscal year, which begins on July 1. To compensate, the administration's plan calls for no merit pay raises for state employees. No funding is allocated for delayed repair and maintenance work on college campuses, including the more than $1 billion in projects across the LSU system.

Added to that, most state agencies would take a 2 percent hit. Some legislators are worried that state services could suffer as a result.

"I keep hearing people say, 'Do more with less,' said Sen. Regina Barrow, D-Baton Rouge. "But at some point, you begin to do less with less."

One part of state government is growing: the Department of Health. Its budget increases by $1.7 billion next year under the governor's proposal, fueled by federal dollars related to Medicaid expansion.

Rep. John Schroder, R-Covington, took issue with the state budget, arguing that the state ought to rein in spending even more. Schroder said the state should spend less than it is expected to bring in, in hopes of preventing another round of midyears cuts if revenues dip.

"Trying to budget every dime that you have is not prudent," Schroder said. "It doesn't work, hasn't worked, doesn't work, and causes great problems within state government."

Dardenne said that while that may be a good idea, it does not work at this time.

"We don't have the luxury of doing that now, because we've got an awful lot of things that ought to be funded. We just don't have enough money to do it," Dardenne explained.

Lawmakers will get to modify the budget when they return to Baton Rouge in April for the spring session.

Gov. John Bel Edwards, who indicated in a statement Thursday that he does not want to cut TOPS, said he would introduce a plan to avoid the reduction before the session begins.

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