House passes state budget plan: TOPS fully funded, other programs see reduced funding

Rep. Cameron Henry (Source: WAFB)
Rep. Cameron Henry (Source: WAFB)

BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - With a largely party line vote, House lawmakers voted Thursday for a Republican-crafted budget for next year, sending it to the Senate for consideration.

Republicans largely voted for the plan, while Democrats voted against. The Edwards administration calls the Republican-crafted budget proposal a "non-starter."

The plan only utilizes part of the money economists believe the state will bring in next year. After years of being forced to come back to the capitol to make mid-year cuts to state agencies when those estimates proved wrong, Republicans say they should reduce spending from the outset and set a portion of the money aside.

"I've recognized that we have a problem, and a majority of the members in this body have recognized that we have a problem when we budget 100 percent of a wrong number," said Rep. Cameron Henry, R-Metairie.

However, Democrats believe such a move amounts to a cut that puts state services and the people who depend on them at risk. Under the proposal, the state's Department of Health takes a hit that the Edwards administration warns could, among other things, reduce the state's ability to fight a Zika outbreak. The proposal also reduces funding for the state's partnerships hospitals that treat the uninsured.

"It can mean life or death for citizens in my area," said Rep. Malinda White, D-Bogalusa, who unsuccessfully tried to amend the budget plan to give more money to hospitals.

Republican leaders suggested the Edwards administration was exaggerating and over-hyping the threat imposed by the reductions. Democrats fired back, accusing Republicans of avoiding hard decisions by introducing a budget with reduced spending without giving specifics.

"It's a transparent attempt to cut the budget deeply, and hide those facts by telling the Division of Administration to do the dirty work," said Rep. Walt Leger, D-New Orleans.

The plan does however, fund the TOPS program entirely. That is more than in the governor's proposal, which called for funding at the same level as the current year: around 70 percent. To pay for the scholarship, Republicans in the House Appropriations committee voted take about $82 million from the Department of Health.

On the floor, the House also voted to remove a rule that would have reallocated about $190 million from the state's federal flood aid to pay for the completion of the Comite Diversion Canal. Rep. Valarie Hodges, R-Denham Springs, introduced the idea, saying it would prevent major flooding going forward.

However, Rep. Pat Smith, D-Baton Rouge, called the proposal "unfair." The Edwards administration estimated that reallocating those dollars could have prevented up to 4,000 homeowners from getting the help they need to rebuild after the flood. Transferring the money would have also required approval from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), possibly prolonging the wait to distribute the dollars.

Hodges says she would look for alternative ways to fund the diversion project.

The budget bill now heads to the Senate, where it will likely receive an extensive overhaul.

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