June 22, 2016 03:13 PM
BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — As a special session on taxes nears its end, Louisiana's state senators Wednesday unveiled their approach for spending $258 million raised so far, protecting college campuses but leaving K-12 public schools on the chopping block.

Behind the scenes, Gov. John Bel Edwards and Senate President John Alario were trying to persuade lawmakers, particularly House Republican leaders, to agree to more tax changes, to further boost revenue in the financial year that begins July 1.

Lawmakers have been grappling with budget woes for 19 weeks across three legislative sessions. They raised $1.2 billion in taxes for next year's budget earlier this year and have boosted that total further in the most recent session, set to end Thursday.

But government programs and services still face cuts.

"There's nobody coming out of this happy," said Sen. Mack "Bodi" White, R-Baton Rouge. "We're doing the best that we can."

The Senate Finance Committee prioritized college campuses, health services and corrections programs over K-12 public schools in its reshuffling of a House version of the budget bill to incorporate the latest round of tax changes.

Senators said they were concerned about the threat of cuts to local public school systems, but noted public college systems have taken repeated hits in recent budget years while K-12 education spending grew.

"Higher education in this state has been cut tremendously, 15 times. We're not competitive," said Sen. Greg Tarver, D-Shreveport.

Public school districts would be in line to receive $38 million less in the budget year that begins July 1, while college campuses would remain at flat financing, under the proposal advanced to the full Senate for consideration.

The LSU medical schools, however, would take reductions. Students in the TOPS college program would get only 70 percent of their tuition costs covered.

Sen. Regina Barrow, D-Baton Rouge, disapproved of the cut to public school systems.

"This is really going to have a devastating, chilling effect across the state," she said.

Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne, said if no additional money was raised by lawmakers, the governor wants a more even split of cuts between colleges and K-12 schools.

In its proposal, the House allocated $21 million more for K-12 public education. But Senate leaders say the House version contained $26 million more than the state has money available, double-counting savings from the state's Medicaid expansion that had already been included in the budget. Senators cut that amount from the bill.

House leaders say they believe senators are claiming a "double-count" to try to put pressure on them to raise more tax revenue, a suggestion that senators deny.

However, members of the Finance Committee did encourage those seeking more dollars for public schools and other budget areas to pressure lawmakers, particularly in the House, to consider further tax increases.

Angela Lorio, who relies on a Medicaid "waiver" program to help her disabled 3-year-old son, lamented the budget decisions lawmakers were making.

"TOPS moms have been pitted against waiver moms. It is horrific, this atmosphere," she said.

Only one large tax proposal remained in play Wednesday, a measure to reduce personal income tax deductions for people who itemize on their state forms. The House rejected the proposal, but Alario, R-Westwego, was trying to revive it.

Under the budget plan backed by the Finance Committee, the safety-net hospitals for the poor would get the full financing requested by Gov. John Bel Edwards' administration, but less than the hospital operators say they need.

A House effort to frontload the TOPS money to give students full financing in the fall semester and larger cuts in the spring was stripped by senators.