BATON ROUGE, La. (WAFB) - The House’s budget committee Thursday, May 21 approved a modest rewrite of Governor John Bel Edwards’ proposal for state spending.
The appropriations committee’s plan would divert $12 million more away from the Louisiana Department of Health (LDH) to pay for improvements to state agricultural centers and help fund pay raises for judges, though justices of the state’s Supreme Court testified they would use the extra money to cover ordinary operating expenses that remain unfunded because of the coronavirus.
“In the big scheme of things, with the budget the size that it is, we’re telling you we only object to $12 million or so," Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne told the appropriations committee. “That’s a pretty good record that we’ve come together on.”
Louisiana faces a $900 million shortfall because of the coronavirus pandemic’s impact on the state’s economy, but federal aid will ultimately mitigate all but $80 million in cuts.
The TOPS scholarship, K-12 schools, and social services are paid for under the latest iteration of the plan. Colleges would still take a roughly $21 million reduction, though it’s unclear how smaller class sizes and reduced dorm capacity will affect higher education’s bottom line.
“We will certainly do all we can to make that work,” higher education commissioner Kim Hunter Reed said.
Republican caucus head Rep. Blake Miguez, New Iberia, amended the bill to withhold money from LDH if it penalizes Louisianans who refuse to answer contact tracers’ questions about their activities during the pandemic.
“(My constituents) sure don’t want the government calling and asking them questions about where they’ve been and what they do,” Rep. R. Dewith Carrier, R-Oakdale, said.
The department has repeatedly said participation in contact tracing is voluntary and that it has no plans to prosecute people who ignore the state’s questions.
The largest divide between the Edwards administration and some lawmakers appears to be LDH’s plan to adjust how hospitals are reimbursed for covering Medicaid patients. Some money would be diverted away from some hospitals to others that provide services to more people.
The concept appears popular, even with legislators who would not normally align with Edwards, but some fear the administration is rushing the process.
“It’s being drastically changed by LDH through rule changes and modeling by people who won’t even leave the state of Texas to come here and explain for 5 minutes and answer questions,” Rep. Tanner Magee, R-Houma, said.
“What I get from LDH on this issue is, ‘Just trust us, the modeling is good. Blah, blah, yeah yeah yeah. Let me just try and mumble through this and we’ll move on to the next step,’” he said. “It’s frustrating to me because this is really what’s going to matter at the end of the day.”
The budget now moves to the House floor for a full debate on May 26. Lawmakers have until June 1 to pass the budget, otherwise, they’ll have to return in a special session before the fiscal year ends on July 1.
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