House panel amends budget to fully fund TOPS, reduce other spending

House panel amends budget to fully fund TOPS, reduce other spending
Source: WAFB
Source: WAFB
Source: WAFB
Source: WAFB

BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - A House panel amended the state's budget for next year, reshaping it to fully fund TOPS while also cutting back on other spending.

The Republican-controlled House Appropriations committee approved the bill Tuesday, sending it to the full House for consideration.

Rep. Franklin Foil, R-Baton Rouge, offered the amendment to fund the scholarship program in its entirety.

"If we don't do anything, many of my constituents will be paying money for college tuition out of their pockets or having to borrow money when they shouldn't," said Foil.

The governor's original budget proposal for next year kept the scholarship funded at the same level as the current year: around 70 percent. To top off the award, the panel approved Foil's amendment, taking $82 million from the Department of Health.

Democrats objected to the proposal. Rep. Pat Smith, D-Baton Rouge, asked if they could instead save money by eliminating certain tax breaks and exemptions and put that money toward the scholarship.

"I think we should fully fund TOPS, I'm just not sure we should fund it on the backs of those who need assistance the most," said Rep. Walt Leger, D-New Orleans.

Overall, the budget plan approved by the panel keeps state spending around the same level as last year's budget - the House GOP has labeled it a "stand-still" budget. However, because certain expenses such as pensions continue to grow year-to-year, Leger said the "stand-still" plan would leave departments with less money. He described it as a "cut."

The plan also holds back on spending a portion of the money the state is anticipated to generate next year. Chairman Cameron Henry, R-Metairie, said setting some money aside should allow them to avoid budget shortfalls down the road. Henry cited examples of how, in recent years, state revenue has come up short of the projections by the Revenue Estimating Conference.

"We can build in the cost and we can spend 100 percent of this, and then mid-year we can come back and take it back from them," Henry said, describing the alternative of using all of the projected finances.

Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne disagreed with the move. He said that while the Edwards administration is in support of setting aside, it should not be done while the budget is unstable.

"Death by a thousand cuts renders it impossible for departments of government to effectively provide services that you expect and the people expect," Dardenne told the panel.

The panel also approved an amendment by Rep. Valarie Hodges, R-Denham Springs, that would set aside $190 million in federal flood assistance for the long-sought Comite Diversion Canal. She said that would provide the necessary finances to complete the project.

Pat Forbes, the executive director of the Office of Community Development, said that sort of money transfer cannot be done without approval from the federal government, which could take time. If it were to go through, up to 4,000 fewer households would be able to receive funding to become rehabilitated, according to Forbes.

The budget plan is scheduled to be debated on the House floor on Thursday.

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