Budget Puzzle Remains Largest Issue In Session's Final Weeks

BATON ROUGE (AP) — Louisiana's public colleges and public health care services started the legislative session in shaky financial shape, facing the risk of deep slashing in the coming months. As lawmakers passed the midpoint of their work, those programs face no greater financial certainty.

         Budget-balancing remains the focal point for state lawmakers, who have yet to reach agreement on how to close a $1.6 billion shortfall as the June 11 end date of the legislative session grows nearer.

         "We're getting closer. We've still got a long way to go," said Senate President John Alario, R-Westwego.

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         Five weeks of the legislative session are behind lawmakers. Four weeks remain.

         Asked if the budget can be balanced without deep cuts, Rep. Lance Harris, R-Alexandria, a Republican leader in the House, replied: "I believe in miracles, and I do sense a spirit of cooperation like we have a good chance of resolving a lot of these issues."

         Of the 845 bills filed in the House and 283 proposed in the Senate, only one measure has made it to Gov. Bobby Jindal's desk: a bill by House Speaker Chuck Kleckley enacting a sales tax exclusion in Calcasieu Parish.

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         Legislative leaders say they've made strides in their financial haggling, with the House planning to vote on a budget recommendation Thursday. And in the last few days lawmakers reached a session milestone, announcing a compromise on one of the biggest, nonfinancial disputes of the session over the Common Core education standards.

         "I couldn't imagine that this would ever happen," said Rep. Brett Geymann, R-Lake Charles, a chief Common Core critic, praising the deal.

         In other areas, senators voted to allow the limited dispensing of medical marijuana to people with serious illnesses and to curb the broad public records exemptions for the governor's office.

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         Lawmakers in the House backed proposals to prohibit hospitals from billing rape victims for their medical exams, to lessen penalties for repeat marijuana possession and to ban sex-selection abortions in Louisiana.

         Jindal had trouble gaining traction for his proposals.

         The Republican governor, a likely presidential candidate, made getting rid of Common Core one of the centerpieces of his limited legislative agenda. He hasn't jumped onboard with the announced compromise, with administration officials suggesting it doesn't go far enough to get rid of the education standards.

         Meanwhile, Jindal's budget-balancing ideas have faced resistance. And his push for a religious objections bill is just getting its first hearing Tuesday after receiving sharp criticism from some business leaders, LGBT groups and others.

         Supporters say the bill by Rep. Mike Johnson, R-Bossier City, would protect people with religious or moral objections to same-sex marriage, while opponents say it would sanction discrimination against same-sex couples.

         Despite the side debates, lawmakers insist they remain focused on finances.

         Behind-the-scenes negotiations continue over the budget to pay for state government and services in the fiscal year that begins July 1. If lawmakers don't agree on ways to raise new cash, higher education and health care programs could receive hefty cuts.

         The House agreed to raise $615 million through a cigarette tax hike and scaled-back tax break spending. Senators are looking for more. They'll consider boosting the impact of the House tax bills in a Monday committee hearing, while the House Appropriations Committee intends Tuesday to consider across-the-board cuts on specially protected funds, hoping to free up dollars to spend elsewhere.

         Lawmakers are struggling to work within Jindal's parameters of what tax changes he's willing to consider. The governor, who guards his record of refusing to raise taxes, won't agree to anything considered a net tax increase by national anti-tax activist Grover Norquist.

         Meeting Jindal's guidelines, Alario said, is "the toughest part, and we're working diligently to try to do that. I think if we could make (the budget deal) veto-proof, that would help us all."

         Alario expects a mix of short-term patches and long-term structural fixes will be combined to balance next year's budget, leaving the next governor — who will take office in January — with several financial messes.

         "There's no time in this session for us to solve all the state's long-term problems. What we'll do is point out all of the shortfalls and try to work with the next governor and the next Legislature to try to get them solved," he said.

         – by AP Reporter Melinda Deslatte



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