Louisiana Lawmakers Could Rework Budget in Possible Special Session

BATON ROUGE (The Center Square) — Some lawmakers are raising the prospect of a special session to rework the budget following a chaotic close to the legislative session that included funding cuts that took some by surprise.

The Senate Finance Committee on Wednesday discussed a flood of amendments to budget bills during the last day of the legislative session that included items senators were unaware of, including a $100 million cut to the Louisiana Department of Health.

The hearing followed another in the Senate Health and Welfare Committee earlier in the day that examined the potential impact of the LDH cut, which could result in the potential reduction in services for nursing homes, pediatrics, psychiatric care, and other Medicaid services.

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In the finance committee, legislative staff explained the frenzy to incorporate hundreds of amendments from a conference committee that included significant changes to school funding and payments to unfunded pension liabilities.

Senate staff never received a conference committee report before the Senate voted to approve budget bills, and Senate leaders signed off on the report minutes before based on discussions with House leadership.

“We were being hurried to sign it or go into special session,” said Finance Committee Chairman Sen. Bodi White, R-Baton Rouge. “We didn’t have but just a few minutes to either sign it or not sign it. And I said this morning in another committee it’s probably the worst thing I ever did, was not read a report with hundreds of millions of dollars it and just went on the word of the conferees.”

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In previous years, the legislature held a public meeting to vet conference committee reports, staff said, but that did not happen this year.

“The past three years that I’ve been here it was all more deliberate and more careful and methodical and mindful,” said Sen. Heather Cloud, R-Turkey Creek. “This year it was haphazard and chaotic and very disingenuous.”

“I am embarrassed for our state,” she said. “We can take what has happened and use it moving forward to not only address rule changes and make them statutory changes, … but we can never allow something like this from happening again.”

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Committee members reviewed some of the last-minute changes to the budget, impacts on specific departments, and options moving forward. Some department officials testified they were never consulted on the changes. Gov. John Bel Edwards, who can line-item veto aspects of the budget, is expected to review the spending bills next week.

“We can make a correction to all of this if we go into a special session to clear it up,” said Sen. Gregory Tarver, D-Shreveport. “We need to make some serious changes.”

Others on the committee suggested Edwards may rectify some of the concerns, particularly the $100 million cut to LDH he promised to “use every means at my disposal to minimize or eliminate those cuts.”

“When he makes his move, we’ll see what options we have on the table,” Senate Minority Leader Gerald Boudreau, of Lafayette, told the finance committee Wednesday.

White said he expects the finance committee to continue reviewing the impact of budget decisions in the coming weeks.

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