Gov. John Bel Edwards has called for a Special Session beginning May 22 to address the state’s budget crisis. Greg Hilburn/USA Today Network
BATON ROUGE — Nursing home residents and hospitals remained safe in next year’s budget bill passed by the Senate here Tuesday, but virtually every other government agency was gutted and TOPS would take a deeper cut under the plan.
Even as senators passed House Bill 1 on a 27-10 vote, they emphasized new taxes can still rescue the budget if lawmakers agree to pass them in a Special Session beginning May 22.
“It’s a budget I don’t know that any of us will find acceptable,” said Senate Finance Chairman Eric LaFleur, D-Ville Platte, as he presented the budget bill. “This is just one step … we still have to take a few big ones.”
“You can’t put lipstick on a pig,” Sen. Francis Thompson, D-Delhi, said of the budget passed by the Senate. “Why would anyone think we could fund this state without additional revenue?”
But lawmakers had a chance to pass taxes to close next year’s $648 million shortfall, known as the fiscal cliff, during a February Special Session and declined.
The Senate’s version of the budget cuts the general fund allocation to the treasurer, judiciary, Legislature, secretary of state and every other agency by 24.2 percent.
It would also cut the popular college scholarship program TOPS by 30 percent, or about $69 million.
That’s a reversal of the version sent to the Senate by the House, which targeted the bulk of the cuts to health care.
The House proposal prompted Gov. John Bel Edwards’ administration to send letters last week warning 37,000 Louisianans they could lose their Medicaid coverage and some could be kicked out of nursing homes.
Of those 37,0000, about 30,000 are living in nursing homes or other long-term care residential settings.
The eviction warning notices created a firestorm both in Louisiana and beyond, drawing national news teams here from CBS and ABC.
Republican lawmakers accused Edwards, a Democrat, of creating a needless panic, and many of the governor’s Democrat allies were also uncomfortable with the timing of the letters.
“We were all shocked an disappointed by the letters,” said Sen. Mike Walsworth, R-West Monroe.
But Edwards continued to insist this week the state was legally bound to notify the nursing home residents and others, even though his Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne earlier said there was no law compelling the notices to be sent now.
“It wasn’t pleasant, but it was required,” Edwards said Monday, whose staff later cited statute they said confirmed they’re position.
LaFleur defended the administration, saying he agreed that the notices “had to be sent.”
Next year’s budget gap is being created by the expiration of $1.4 billion in temporary taxes that fall off the books June 30. The new fiscal year begins July 1.
But even as the Senate voted to approve its version of the budget, members dismissed it as unacceptable, as did Edwards.
While the governor has saved his sharpest criticism for House Republicans, he said the Senate version of the budget is equally flawed.
“The budget passed by the Senate doesn’t reflect the priorities of the state,” Edwards said. “Both (versions) are catastrophic.”
The governor said the Senate version of the budget would cut higher education by $96 million and eliminate 2,000 state jobs.
Edwards had preferred the budget be parked until the Special Session, but the majority of lawmakers said it was their responsibility to pass a budget during the Regular Session.
There were exceptions. Rep. Karen Carter Peterson, D-New Orleans, said passing the budget “gives false hope.”
The governor stopped short of saying he will veto the budget bill if the House concurs with the Senate version and sends it to his desk this week.
“One way or another it will not be guiding our appropriations for next year,” Edwards said.