Feb. 21, 2017 03:55 PM
Photo by Elisa Rolle/Wikimedia
With time running short, Louisiana's lawmakers Tuesday moved the pieces of a budget-rebalancing deal into place. But final passage of the plan to close a $304 million deficit remained far from certain in a special session that must end Wednesday.

The broad outlines of a negotiated deal between the House, Senate and Gov. John Bel Edwards were reached Monday by legislative leaders to eliminate the gap in the state's $27 billion operating budget for the fiscal year that ends June 30.

However, Republican House leaders acknowledged they don't necessarily yet have the support to pass it. One key vote remains uncertain, whether two-thirds of the House will agree to use $99 million of Louisiana's "rainy day" fund to help patch together the budget.

"We're not necessarily warm to that just yet," House Appropriations Committee Chairman Cameron Henry, R-Metairie, told Senate leaders.

Still, the Appropriations Committee — urged by Henry — agreed to a procedural move that advanced the legislation authorizing use of the rainy day fund to the full House for debate, to keep negotiations from cratering.

Some conservative lawmakers in the majority-Republican House have balked at using the savings account, saying state government should instead pare back its spending.

The Senate already has approved the $99 million figure, which is less than the $120 million available from the rainy day fund. Edwards and Senate leaders had wanted to tap into the full amount.

"This resolution seeks to find a common ground," said Senate President John Alario, R-Westwego, as he made the rare move of testifying personally in the Appropriations hearing.

In addition to the rainy fund dollars, other available money would be used to plug gaps. And cuts to agencies would range from about $80 million to $90 million. How those cuts would be divvied remains unclear, though it appears public colleges, prisons, the state child welfare agency and the TOPS college tuition program would be shielded.

Alario said the Senate believes using $99 million from the reserve account "is adequate to take care of basic needs" in the remaining four months of the budget year.

"Sometimes in a democracy, we each have to give and take," Alario said.

As part of the deal, the Senate appeared poised to back a proposal from House Speaker Taylor Barras, R-New Iberia, that senators rejected last year.

Barras' legislation would make 3 percent cuts to some fees and other dedicated sources of revenue that agencies receive, starting in the financial year that begins July 1 and budget years after that. The money, estimated to be as much as $96 million next year, would be diverted elsewhere in the budget for spending. It wouldn't help with the current year deficit.

Members of the Senate Finance Committee questioned the mechanics, worried it would hit funds earmarked for roadwork and said it could divert fees that people paid for specific services to instead be used elsewhere.

Barras said the concerns can be addressed over the next few months.

Despite senators' wide array of worries, the committee approved the legislation without objection, sending it to the full Senate for debate.

They were urged to advance the measure by Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne, the governor's chief budget adviser. Though Dardenne said he has concerns, the legislation was a linchpin in the deficit-closing deal.

"I think it will facilitate passage of the appropriations bill," he said.