Capitol Views: House sends budget bill to Senate

With roughly half of the regular session remaining, the Louisiana House of Representatives voted this afternoon to send the latest version of the state’s spending plan over to the Senate. That means the lower chamber has advanced the main budget bill for the 2017-2018 fiscal year before it has approved any new revenue in the form of tax changes.

The approach sends another strong message that conservatives, with their majority in the House, are putting more of an emphasis on spending reductions than they are the tax increases supported by Gov. John Bel Edwards. In fact, House Republicans are pushing a quasi-standstill budget that falls short of the current fiscal year’s funding levels by about 2.5%.

In a statement released after the House vote, the governor accused Republicans of gutting health care, children’s services and veteran services to “levels that endanger the health and welfare of the people of Louisiana.” Edwards continued, “We can’t move Louisiana forward if we’re standing still. Despite their rhetoric to pass a ‘standstill’ budget, the House Republican leadership just rushed through a flawed budget that would send us tumbling backwards.”

After nearly six hours of debate, and a 63-40 vote, House Bill 1 by Appropriations Committee Chairman Cameron Henry, R-Metairie, is finally in play. Longtime Capitol players expect that the Senate, which gets the bill next, will push forward with significant changes that more closely mirror Edwards’ original spending proposal.

If that’s the case, and the House declines to accept those changes, the budget debate will eventually move behind closed doors and into the conference committee process, where representatives from both chambers will be charged with hammering out the difference.

Today’s House votes on the amendments that were introduced displayed a clear partisan divide and a reluctance by Republicans to shift away from the so-called standstill strategy. Of the 14 amendments introduced, only two were adopted by the body. The final vote on the budget bill was likewise largely delivered along party lines.

Much of the debate centered around the doubts House Republicans have about the $440 million budget shortfall that has been identified by the governor. Rather, conservatives see that deficit as a “wish list” for agencies and departments.

For example, Rep. Sam Jones, D-Franklin, attempted to float an amendment to restore $147,638 that the administration said it needs to keep certain veterans cemeteries from closing. The amendment was rejected, with Henry calling the threats of closures a “scare tactic.”

More money for state employee raises, Comite River flood protection, public-private partnerships and a variety of other needs were turned back by the House as well.

One political twist on the budget debate came from the Louisiana Committee for a Republican Majority, a political action committee that spent heavily to fill the Legislature with GOP members in past elections. LCRM notified legislators that they were going to be graded on their budget votes today for the group’s 2017 legislative scorecard.

The biggest loser in the House Republican spending plan can be found in the area of health care, where losses are estimated to be somewhere between $619 million and $720 million. On the higher education front, the House GOP was likewise working to ensure that the TOPS scholarship program would be fully funded. That led some lawmakers to privately complain that colleges were being pitted against hospitals.

As the debate came to a close, Speaker Pro Tem Walt Leger, D-New Orleans, complained that the budget cuts required under the Republican plan would “punt” the tough decisions—meaning where to place those spending reductions—to the Edwards administration. He suggested that the Appropriations Committee needed to meet again to be more specific.

“I’m miffed that we don’t have a more specific set of cuts,” Jones added.

—Jeremy Alford

Jeremy Alford will publish a daily update throughout the legislative regular session on Daily Report PM. Alford reports on Louisiana politics at LaPolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook. He can be reached at JJA@LaPolitics.com.

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