Senators Close Health Care Gaps In Next Year's Budget

BATON ROUGE (AP) — Senators crafted a new version of next year's $24 billion budget proposal Thursday, using dollars anticipated from a cigarette tax hike and increased fees on car buyers to stop deep cuts to public health care services.

         The Senate Finance Committee adopted 39 pages of changes to the House-approved budget bill in a late-evening session, adding about $250 million for programs and services. As the spending plan advances to the full Senate for debate, public colleges and health programs for the poor would be spared cuts in the fiscal year that begins July 1.

         "When needs were critical, we tried to fund them," Committee Chairman Jack Donahue, R-Mandeville, said after the meeting.

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         This week, the committee made adjustments to House bills that scale back tax-break programs and raise taxes on smokers. Senators' adjustments boosted the revenue raised from the $615 million in tax changes passed by the House to about $750 million, mainly by increasing the planned cigarette tax hike to $1 per pack.

         Senators plugged in that additional money, along with dollars anticipated from fee increases on car buyers and other financing maneuvers, to offset cuts in the House version of the budget.

         Among the biggest beneficiaries of Thursday's action would be the operators of LSU's privatized hospitals and the LSU medical schools in New Orleans and Shreveport.

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         All the gaps identified in the hospital deals were funded, and new money was provided to the medical schools so they wouldn't have to absorb millions in insurance and retiree costs from the privatization deals.

         Additional dollars were poured into state parks, state museums and the state library to lessen planned cuts. More money was added into the state education department to shrink reductions and give the agency enough money for standardized testing plans.

         Dollars were provided to open a new juvenile detention facility, to continue operating a voter outreach program in the secretary of state's office and to shrink planned cuts to the Agriculture Department.

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         In addition to escaping cuts, higher education institutions received some add-ons in the Senate proposal. Funding was boosted to the LSU Agricultural Center and the Pennington Biomedical Research Center overseen by LSU. New dollars would be provided to the Southern University System, to Grambling State University and to community colleges.

         Nearly $26 million was restored to public health care programs, after senators were told they risked shuttering safety inspections, water monitoring programs and testing for possible disease outbreaks without the money.

         To help balance the budget, the committee stripped nearly $39 million in K-12 public education increases sought by the House and the state education board and reshuffled those dollars elsewhere, but maintained a proposed increase for students with disabilities.

         Donahue called pulling together the financing plans "a herculean job."

         The full Senate plans to debate the budget bill Monday. Senators are in a contentious set of budget negotiations with the House, with the two sides at odds over whether to conform to Gov. Bobby Jindal's parameters for what tax changes he'll consider.

         The House passed a set of financing plans that risk a veto from the Republican governor, while the Senate is trying to pull together a package of bills that Jindal would be willing to sign.

         Only days remain to work out a deal. The legislative session must end by June 11.

         – by AP Reporter Melinda Deslatte

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