La. legislators repeat familiar arguments as special session budget debate begins

Louisiana Legislature (Source: WAFB)
Louisiana Legislature (Source: WAFB)
Rep. Cameron Henry, R-Metairie (Source: WAFB)
Rep. Cameron Henry, R-Metairie (Source: WAFB)

BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - After a long weekend, lawmakers appear to be right back to where they left off on budget negotiations, raising questions about whether they will reach an agreement by the new deadline.

House lawmakers and other state leaders echoed familiar refrains Monday during a committee hearing, repeating arguments made during the regular session.

"We have two different ideologies. Obviously. I don't think anything you say is going to convince me, and nothing I'm going to say is going to convince you either," Rep. Valarie Hodges, R-Denham Springs, told a member of the Edwards administration during a hearing.

Hodges is one of several supporting a budget plan filed by Rep. Cameron Henry, R-Metairie, who chairs the House Appropriations committee in charge of the budget.

Henry's budget bill is essentially identical to a bill passed by the House a few weeks back during the session. The governor threatened to veto that plan, and it was promptly rewritten in the Senate, which works more closely with the governor.

The standoff still centers on whether to leave dollars on the table when crafting next year's spending plan.

Conservative Republicans in the House want to set aside some money as a safety net for a potential midyear shortfall. Louisiana has had several deficits in the middle of the year recently. Henry's plan leaves $206 million on the table.

"We can appropriate a number that we know is wrong, that is going to drive a midyear cut. Or we can do something different and just hold back a little bit," said Henry.

"We all know the needs and wants. This is really just about what can we afford," asked Rep. John Schroder, R-Covington, defending the proposal.

Democrats, the Senate, and the Edwards administration prefer to allocate all of the money in order, they say, to avoid putting programs at risk. That includes money for higher education. State colleges have seen reductions of much of the past decade.

"Enough is enough, it's just simply that. We can ill-afford the cuts," Dr. Ray Belton, the chancellor of Southern University, told lawmakers.

The Department of Health, meanwhile, warns that the House plan would force them to eliminate certain mental health services and Zika prevention. Special daycare centers for young children with disabilities would also go away.

Despite the back and forth, Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne said he believes lawmakers will make a deal in time, particularly as the pressure of that deadline grows.

"They're facing the reality of once again saying to the public, 'I can't do the job that you elected me to do. We can't reach an agreement. We can't enact the state budget,' which would be the height of irresponsibility," said Dardenne during a press conference Monday.

The House panel in charge of the budget is expected to vote Tuesday, June 13, sending it to the House floor for a vote on Wednesday.

Each day lawmakers are at the capitol for the special session, regardless of whether they get the job done, is estimated to cost taxpayers between $50,000 and $60,000.

Lawmakers have until Monday, June 19 to reach a deal on the budget.

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