Senate panel questions budget passed in House

BATON ROUGE — The Senate Finance Committee on Friday questioned a Republican budget passed by the House that would fully fund hospitals for the poor but slash funding for other health programs by $116 million.

Including federal matching dollars, the total cuts to Louisiana Department of Health would amount to over half a billion dollars, compromising mental health services and substance abuse treatment programs when temporary revenue measures expire on July 1.

“We can’t continue to cut and appropriately meet the needs of the people of this state,” said Health Secretary Rebecca Gee.

The hearing illustrated the continuing divide between House Republicans, who are focused on cutting the size of state government, and many senators, who want to raise more revenue to avoid cuts in health care and the TOPS scholarship program.

Leaders from both chambers are negotiating with Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, to see if a compromise to resolve a projected $648 million shortfall in the state budget can be reached before the special session ends on Monday. Both houses plan to return on Sunday for possible votes on the major revenue and spending bills.

Sen. Regina Barrow, D-Baton Rouge, told Gee that “at the end of the day, we’ll end up spending much more money if we don’t provide funding for these services.”

“You cannot take any more cuts,” she said, adding that the Health Department had been “cut drastically over the past 10 years.”

The House budget, authored by Rep. Cameron Henry, R-Metairie, and the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, would slash the popular TOPS scholarships by 10 to 20 percent depending on how much revenue legislators end up raising.

Uncertainty over TOPS funding has prompted some top Louisiana high school graduates to take scholarships at out-of-state schools. Currently, there are around 50,000 students who receive TOPS.

Jim Henderson, president of the University of Louisiana System, told the committee that cutting TOPS “will be a financial hardship for students who have already fulfilled all of the criteria that the state of Louisiana has given them to earn TOPS.”

“In my opinion, it’s a moral imperative that we find a way, as much as we can, to fulfill the TOPS promise for students,” he added.