La. Senate panel unveils state budget plan, restoring money to higher ed and DCFS

BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - A Senate panel took the wraps off their version of the state's budget.

"In a lot of ways, we're doing what's necessary. We would like to do more," said Sen. Eric LaFleur, D-Ville Platte. In presenting the budget rewrite, LaFleur described the plan as "responsible," yet "austere."

The proposal, adopted by the Senate Finance Committee without objection, fills in some of the cuts made by the House. Higher education, the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS), and corrections would not longer fall under the knife.

"We made some good decisions, we didn't just do an across the board haircut," said Sen. Sharon Hewitt, R-Slidell, comparing it to the House's proposal.

The plan keeps TOPS fully funded next year, while also adding money to health programs that were eliminated altogether under the House proposal, including mental healthcare services for children and adults.

That arrangement, however, did not sit well with all lawmakers. Some of them wanted more funding for the Department of Health.

"I'm struggling with fully funding TOPS at the expense of healthcare, especially mental health," said Sen. Regina Barrow, D-Baton Rouge, who noted that education and healthcare should not be "pitted" against each other.

In the House plan, lawmakers set aside about $200 million, with the hope of avoiding a midyear shortfall. However, the governor and the Senate committee believed keeping that money off the table would lead to the ending of key programs.

The governor referred to the House plan as a "non-starter" and threatened to veto such a proposal, sending lawmakers into a special session.

The Senate panel's plan instead spends all of that money. It also sets money aside for $80 million in left-over expenses from the current fiscal year. Those remaining bills were not accounted for in the House budget plan.

In a statement, the governor called the Senate committee's proposal "appropriate" and said, "If this budget makes its way through the process, the need for a special session this summer will be greatly diminished."

However, the question remains as to whether conservatives in the House will have any appetite for a plan that does not set aside any money.

"The House isn't going to go to zero, but as long as there is some cushion, I think there's a number that can be reached for a compromise," said Rep. Franklin Foil, R-Baton Rouge, who serves as the vice chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.

Lawmakers have until Thursday, June 8 to finalize the budget.

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