Feb. 20, 2017 12:03 PM
Wikimedia

The Louisiana state House and Senate have staked out their positions on closing Louisiana's $304 million deficit. Now, the two sides have three days remaining in the budget-rebalancing special legislative session to reach a deal.

Negotiations were expected to begin in earnest Monday between the two chambers, a day after the Senate heavily rewrote the budget bill sent over Friday by the House.

The central disagreement over reworking the $27 billion state operating budget remained the same as when the session started Feb. 13: How deeply to cut state spending in the remaining four months of the budget year versus how much to tap Louisiana's "rainy day" fund.

RAINY DAY FUND MONEY

Both the House and Senate have agreed to use another $100 million or so in excess funds and unused fee and tax dollars that Gov. John Bel Edwards proposed.

The Democratic governor wants the Legislature also to use the full $119.6 million available from the rainy day fund. The conservative GOP-majority House backed a plan that would use nearly $75 million, but some Republicans are resistant to using money from the savings account at all.

"It should be the last thing we do, not the first thing we look at," said Rep. Tony Bacala, R-Prairieville.

The Republican-majority Senate's version of the budget-rebalancing proposal would use $99 million from the fund.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Eric LaFleur said he'd prefer to follow the governor's approach, but doesn't think that can win enough support.

"We're dealing with a lot of different people, a lot of different philosophies," said LaFleur, D-Ville Platte. "It's not bad to compromise as long as we stick to our guns."

Use of the rainy day fund requires a two-thirds vote of the House and Senate on legislation separate from the budget bills. The Senate has reached that hurdle for its $99 million plan. But the House hasn't taken a vote on tapping into the reserves yet — and its budget plan didn't reach the two-thirds hurdle when it passed separately.

CUT PROPOSALS

Edwards' budget plan would cut about $60 million in state spending. Colleges, prisons, K-12 public schools, the TOPS college tuition program and the state child welfare agency would be shielded. The largest cuts would fall in the state health department.

The House-backed approach to budget rebalancing would slash about $115 million in state spending. On top of Edwards' cuts, the health department reductions would deepen, prisons would take a hit and other agencies would take new cuts. More than $17 million would be reduced across departments for vacant positions.

During a day-long Saturday hearing, Edwards administration officials told senators the House plan would force release of some nonviolent inmates, threaten prison security, levy cuts at rural hospitals struggling to stay open and shutter the education department. The nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Office said the House plan assumes more savings than are likely reachable from eliminating vacant jobs.

After that dire testimony, the Senate rewrote the budget proposal Sunday to cut around $80 million. It contains deeper cuts than Edwards wanted to the health department, but it would shield prisons, minimize the cut to rural hospitals and eliminate the House's cut to the education department.

In all three plans, public colleges and TOPS would be protected.

WHAT HAPPENS NOW

Closed-door haggling between the House and the Senate usually hammers out a final version of any budget deal. Edwards said he can't imagine the session — which must wrap up Wednesday — ending in a meltdown.

Perhaps the most difficult vote is scheduled Monday, on whether two-thirds of the chamber will authorize use of the rainy day fund and for how much.