House OKs Senate changes to budget

BATON ROUGE — The House on Thursday voted 61-37 to pass the major changes that the Senate made to the state budget to fund health care services while slashing spending on state agencies and TOPS scholarships.

The budget bill now goes to Gov. John Bel Edwards, who has called a special session that starts Tuesday to try to persuade the Legislature to raise revenue and avoid the cuts.

As a result, some legislators called the bill a “pretend budget” since some of the cuts, which include a 30 percent reduction in TOPS funding, could still be averted.

Edwards has called on legislators to extend some temporary revenue measures to cover a projected $648 million shortfall in next year’s state budget.

The budget passed by both chambers includes a 24.2 percent cut to all state agencies from the state general fund, a cut which many have said will leave the agencies unable to function.

“By passing this bill, our constituents will see very clearly laid out what is not funded,” said Rep. Cameron Henry, R-Metairie, chair of the House Appropriations Committee.

Lawmakers have been struggling to create and pass a budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1. The gap is a result of the expiration of a 1-cent sales tax, which was a temporary solution to the state’s financial shortcomings.

The Republican-led House failed to pass any revenue-raising measures during a special session earlier this year, and the Legislature cannot vote on revenue-raising measures until the next special session begins.

But Henry, one of the most powerful Republican lawmakers, said on Thursday that he was in favor of raising some revenue to increase TOPS funding.

“We made a promise to TOPS students,” Henry said. “I think we should abide by that.”

While the House originally cut funding for health care, it ultimately accepted the Senate’s decision to fund health care priorities, like public-private partnership hospitals and nursing home costs for the poor. The House had proposed cutting TOPS by 20 percent, and the Senate expanded that cut to 30 percent.