La. Lawmakers Regret Cutting $100M from Proposed Health Department Budget Increase

BATON ROUGE (AP) — Lawmakers in Louisiana’s GOP-controlled Senate said Tuesday that they regretted their hasty passage of the state’s $45 billion budget — namely their decision to reduce a proposed funding increase for the state Department of Health by $100 million — and called on Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards to clean up the mess.

Edwards recently said that he would “use every means” at his disposal to either partly or completely restore the proposed funding.

The Senate Finance Committee and Health & Welfare Committee met Tuesday, two weeks after the chaotic ending of Louisiana’s legislative session, to publicly discuss and understand the impact of a plethora of budget amendments, some of which senators say were made by House members at the last minute.

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The budget was passed by the Republican-dominated Legislature 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.

Among those regretting their approval of the budget was Senate Finance Committee chairperson Bodi White, a longtime Republican lawmaker who sat on the six-person committee that crafted the fiscal amendments behind closed doors. The committee comprised both House and Senate members.

Bodi said he signed the amendment report, without reading the document, in the waning minutes of the session in order to avoid a special session. Now, having taken time to digest the changes, he said he “prays” the governor will veto the budget.

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“We did some things that should never have been done, especially when we have surpluses … and I take part in responsibility,” White told colleagues Tuesday. ” … I didn’t have much time and I had no idea what was in it. I trusted my legislators from the other (chamber) and obviously should not have.”

Tuesday’s tense discussion marked the latest communication failure between the two legislative chambers over fiscal matters this session.

For years, during financial woes under former Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal, lawmakers were forced to cut areas of the budget. 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 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.

House Speaker Clay Schexnayder said in order to pay down more debt, lawmakers looked at departments that had fiscal “over-asks” in their budgets. As a result, they came up with rejecting a portion of the Department of Health budget increase sought by Edwards.

Schexnayder said Tuesday that there is “plenty of blame to go around for the budget being delayed,” and he noted that the department was still going to get $144.6 million more than it did last year.

While some Republicans argue the deduction is a drop in the bucket compared to the health department’s $20 billion budget, officials warn that it could have significant consequences — most notably, a loss of up to $700 million in matching federal funds, something many say they weren’t aware of while voting on the budget. They also say the money was needed to cover medical inflation and an increase in service costs.

“I’ve not heard a solid reason why they can’t do some belt tightening in areas that don’t impact matching federal dollars,” Schexnayder said.

Services that could be reduced as a result of the deduction include behavioral health services, an uncompensated-care reimbursement fund, the agency’s Nursing Home Rebase program, mobile cancer screenings, state-funded health care for the elderly and hospital security, Department of Health Secretary Stephen Russo told lawmakers Tuesday.

“These are not games, people in the state will die,” Democratic Sen. Gerald Boudreaux said of the possible cuts.

A couple lawmakers on Tuesday suggested the possibility of convening a special session to address the budget issues. An agreement would be even more difficult to reach during a special session, however, as it would require a three-fourths majority vote in the House and the Senate.

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