May 1, 2017 01:46 PM

The bill before the Senate Finance Committee removing the statutory mandate that state funds go to itemized state and local programs was held to allow the author additional time to build her case.

Senate Bill 226, by Sen. Sharon Hewitt, R-Chalmette, would give lawmakers more latitude when it comes to funding levels, especially during economically tough times, which potentially could permit broader, more equitable reductions.

Currently, the only major areas not protected by some statutory or constitutional dedications are higher education and health care — the two primary targets for reductions when it comes to spending cuts.

Some lawmakers argue that many dedications aren’t reviewed for effectiveness as often as they should and have become stale over time. Erasing the automatic funding could free up money to put into departments and programs that need it most.

Sen. James Fannin, R-Jonesboro, warned Hewitt about potential consequences. “Sometimes, freeing it up means . . . moving from where it’s needed to where it may not be needed.”

Sen. Conrad Appel, R-Metairie, called SB226 beneficial because the targeted funds need to be scrutinized, and state law already mandates annually reviewing at least a portion of them. “I know we’re not doing that.”

Sen. Regina Barrow, D-Baton Rouge, pointed specifically to the Telecommunications for the Deaf Fund and asked if that would be completely eliminated.

Hewitt said it would, along with a similar fund for the blind, because it does not meet one of the five criteria already in law. But Hewitt noted the result may mean those programs ultimately would receive more funding than they currently do.

Libby Murphy, who came to the meeting on behalf of the Louisiana Association for the Blind, is against Hewitt’s bill in its current version.

“That’s the problem with funds like this that serve a small population,” Murphy said. “Unless there’s a huge outcry for the need, then it’s generally not given as much attention.”

Murphy said Louisiana leads the nation for the number, per capita, of individuals who are both deaf and blind. It is also second in the world.

Sen. Ronnie Johns, R-Lake Charles, said while he agreed with the concept of the legislation he nonetheless warned some of the funds are bonded. “If this goes away, you’re talking about an incredible problem.”

Hewitt encouraged Johns to point those sorts of things out before the bill again comes before the committee next week. “We know for a fact that there will be some changes to this (bill).”

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