Louisiana Budget With Deep Health Cuts Approved By House


BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — With only two votes to spare, the Louisiana House on Thursday backed a $27 billion state operating budget for next year that would steeply reduce spending on health services for the poor, the elderly, and people with disabilities to offset expiring state taxes.

The spending plan for the financial year that begins July 1 squeaked through the House 55-47 , handing a win to House Republican leaders who sought to send the budget to the Senate for debate.

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While some agencies would be shielded from cuts, reductions would hit public safety programs and health care. The popular TOPS college program would only cover 80 percent of tuition costs.

Republican leaders called the proposal a "responsible budget," because it spends only the dollars available and stays in balance. Democrats called it devastating to the state. Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, described the proposal as "unworthy of the people of Louisiana," and said if the spending plan reached his desk, it "will not become law."

Appropriations Chairman Cameron Henry, the Metairie Republican who handles the budget in the House, downplayed the cuts' impact and urged passage, saying the overall reduction is about 5 percent of spending. He said taxpayers expect lawmakers to craft a budget, and that work shouldn't stall because of disagreements over cuts.

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"Is it a perfect budget? No. But we'll never get a perfect budget. Someone will always need more," Henry said. He added: "We have to live within our means."

House Democrats voted in a near bloc against a budget that would spend $1.8 billion less next year than this year.

"We are constitutionally obligated to pass a budget. But we are not constitutionally obligated to pass this one. And shame on us if we do," Rep. Robert Johnson, the Democratic leader, shouted on the House floor. He said the proposal would "shut down hospitals, throw the elderly out of nursing homes, deny the sick treatment."

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A handful of GOP lawmakers also refused to support measure, saying the slashing is too deep.

Louisiana has a $648 million budget gap next year. With lost federal matching dollars, the shortfall grows larger.

Edwards wants lawmakers to replace some expiring temporary taxes, but a special session earlier this year ended in stalemate. Edwards wants another special session, with a final budget crafted then.

It's unclear what the Senate will do with the proposal. Senate Finance Chairman Eric LaFleur said he will continue budget hearings, but he didn't commit to pass a spending plan, saying he favored a special session.

"It doesn't seem to make sense for us to proceed knowing that the document isn't acceptable to anyone," the Ville Platte Democrat said.

Republicans who want a budget passed before a special session said it would show the gaps that could be filled with taxes.

"No one likes the budget. But what it's going to do is identify the areas that we are short so people around the state can see that," said Rep. Mark Abraham, a Lake Charles Republican. "People think we have enough money to cover all our expenses in the state. This will show them where the holes are."

Opponents said they can't support sending signals they're willing to shutter health programs and eliminate services.

Jeff Reynolds, chief financial officer for the health department, said the budget proposal would eliminate mental health services, a program that helps children with disabilities and financing that keeps thousands in nursing homes.

Supplemental financing for the safety-net hospitals and clinics that care for the poor would be nearly eliminated. Reynolds said that would close hospitals in Shreveport, Monroe, Lafayette, Bogalusa and Lafayette. Thousands of people would be laid off, causing damaging ripples throughout the economy, he said. The state's medical schools would lose training facilities and money.

"This is a major step-back of the state's commitment to the citizens we serve," Reynolds said.

– by AP reporter, Melinda Deslatte

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