La. legislators pass budget, ending special session 3 days early

BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - Louisiana legislators wrapped up the special session three days early, sending a budget to the governor's desk.

The Senate gave final approval to the plan with a 26-9 vote.

"I'm going to support this budget because it's just like me. Far from perfect, but I'm trying," said Sen. Norby Chabert, R-Houma.

The plan makes use of all the money the state is expected to bring in next year. It fully funds TOPS. It also spares state colleges from cuts.

"For the first time in 10 years, we are not gutting higher ed. We're not helping them that much, but we're not gutting them," said Sen. JP Morrell, D-New Orleans.

The bill also spares foster care and child welfare from the knife. State prisons avoid a hit that department leaders warned could lead to some offenders being released early. The spending plan also includes a 2 percent raise for about 38,000 state workers, marking their first pay raise in years.

Other programs see reduced spending, including mental health services.

"It's not perfect, it doesn't do everything we want it to do, but under the circumstances, it does about the best we can do," said Governor John bel Edwards during a press conference after lawmakers adjourned from the special session, the fourth since he took office.

Nine senators – mainly Republicans – opposed the plan. Many of them wanted to see money left on the table to prepare for a shortfall in the middle of the year.

"I philosophically do not agree with spending all of our projected revenue when we have 30 years of history that shows us we are always off," said Sen. Sharon Hewitt, R-Slidell.

The bill does, however, require state departments and agencies to hold back in reserve $60 million overall to prepare for any possible shortfall. That requirement was included as part of a compromise with conservatives.

Still, Speaker Taylor Barras, R-New Iberia, warns that state programs are likely going to have to take a hit later in the year if revenues do not come in as expected.

"With the level of funding that's included in this budget, you can only anticipate the possibility of some midyear cuts," said Barras.

Overall, the spending plan sent to the governor's desk is nearly identical to a budget the Senate passed about two weeks ago. In the chaotic last moments of the regular session, the bill got caught up in negotiations and was never given a vote on the House floor, pushing lawmakers into the special session.

"I just didn't feel we had the time to debate the bill, understand what was in it, understand what was in the conference committee report," Barras said, defending his decision to not allow a vote on the measure.

Still, many believe the budget bill would have passed if the full House had been allowed to vote on the proposal on the last day of the regular session, thereby allowing them to avoid a special session.

"I certainly think we could have gotten thru this on Thursday [June 8]," said Rep. Walt Leger, D-New Orleans.

"It was a needless special session when we failed to finish our business when we had a fiscal session that started in April and ended in June," said Rep. Rob Shadoin, R-Ruston.

Ending the session, while lawmakers have cleared the budget hurdle, there is still trouble on the horizon. The state is facing an unresolved $1.3 billion fiscal cliff next year. Lawmakers may be called back into a special session to fix it.

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