Edwards Vetoes Portion of Budget, Restores Health Department Increase

BATON ROUGE (AP) — Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards vetoed parts of Louisiana’s budget on Thursday after lawmakers called on him to clean up the state’s hastily-passed plan.

The Republican-dominated Legislature had allocated a chunk of money to pay down state retirement debt, but Edwards redirected a portion of it to increase funding for early childhood education and restore a proposed $100 million increase to the Louisiana Department of Health.

In his veto message, Edwards said restoring the health department increase was necessary to “protect against devastating programmatic cuts” and avoid losing up to $700 million in federal funding.

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Edwards, who is in his final six months of office, was expected to veto parts of the approximately $45 billion Republican-crafted budget. He had repeatedly said he was disappointed and blindsided by it.

Lawmakers — including longtime Republican and Senate Finance Committee chairperson Bodi White — were pressuring the governor to use his veto power. They said it wasn’t until after final passage of the budget that they learned the impact of their decisions, especially removing the proposed funding increase for the state Department of Health.

While some Republicans argued the reduction is a drop in the bucket compared to the health department’s $20 billion budget, officials said it would have significant consequences — most notably the loss of the hundreds of millions in matching federal dollars. Health officials also say the money was needed to cover medical inflation and an increase in service costs.

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Services that could be cut or decreased include behavioral health, an uncompensated-care reimbursement fund, the agency’s Nursing Home Rebase program, mobile cancer screenings, state-funded health care for older residents and hospital security.

“You can’t cut mandatory parts of your Medicaid program, you have to cut optional services,” Edwards said Wednesday on “Ask the Governor,” a monthly call-in show that airs on the Louisiana Radio Network. “That looks like mental health. That looks like 12 months of postpartum care for ladies who deliver babies. It looks like end-stage renal disease and hospice.”

For years, during financial woes under former Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal, lawmakers were forced to make cuts. But this year, with an estimated $2.2 billion in extra revenue, legislators debated how best to spend a surplus.

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The budget drew expected party tensions during Louisiana’s two-month legislative session, but even more noticeably caused a divide between the House and Senate.

The House wanted to take a conservative approach and focus on paying down state retirement debt. The Senate, however, backed Edwards, who wanted to use the money for teacher pay raises, coastal restoration projects, early learning access and the increase in the Department of Health’s budget.

Lawmakers were unable to come to terms, and the budget was sent to a six-person House and Senate committee that crafted fiscal amendments behind closed doors. The Republican-dominated Legislature then hastily passed the budget in the final 30 minutes of the session, with little to no explanation of the changes, minimal debate and in some cases a lack of testimony over how the amendments could affect services.

Edwards’ vetoes may not be permanent. Lawmakers could attempt to override him.

Although there have only been two veto sessions since 1974, it seems increasingly realistic this year — especially as Edwards said he intends to block a package of anti-LGBTQ bills. Republicans said they would likely return to the Capitol if Edwards follows through on his promise, but it’s still unknown whether legislators would also discuss the budget vetoes.

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