May 2, 2017 06:43 AM

Flood disaster relief for homeowners shifted to flood control project near Baton Rouge

Photo by Robin May

The House Appropriations Committee sent a dramatically re-worked state budget bill to the House of Representatives on Monday, making good on a proposal to reduce state spending to avoid midyear budget cuts but leaving the specifics of the cuts up to the Edwards administration.

The committee approved a series of amendments to HB1 which include a $237 million cut in funding for the Louisiana Department of Health. The committee also approved an amendment to shift $190 million in federal disaster relief money directed to homeowners hit by the August 2016 floods to a long-delayed flood control project in the Baton Rouge area.

The bill now goes to the House floor where it awaits debate and votes on Thursday. The Appropriations Committee's version of HB1 was heavily amended on the House floor in 2016. It is likely that similar attempts to amend the budget bill will be made this year. It is not clear whether those efforts will succeed.

The work of subgroups of the Appropriations Committee shielded much of the work on the budget from public scrutiny and even many members of the House. The committee chaired by Rep. Cameron Henry met publicly during the current session only a handful of times prior to Monday's decisive meeting.

In all, the committee approved 83 amendments to the budget which came with varying degrees of specificity. While some amendments directed the shifting of tens of thousands of dollars between parishes and municipalities in them, when it came to the biggest cuts, the committee set targets and left the details to the administration.

The LDH cut was made through a single amendment which orders and directs the commissioner of administration to cut to make two cuts in General Fund support for the department — $81,862,855 and $155,514,857. The amendment does not specify which programs the combined $237,377,712 can be made, but it does specify what the cuts cannot affect. The parts of the LDH budget that are off limits from the cuts are "waiver services, applied behavioral health analysis rates, or graduate medical eduction."

The $81 million cut is out of General Fund support for non-discretionary spending by LDH. The $155 million cut is out of the discretionary spending category. Both category of funding include Medicaid services that draw a match of federal dollars. It is not clear if the cuts in the two funding categories can be made without affecting those services or other programs that draw down federal matching funds.

The $237 million LDH cut would leave the department's total budget just below $12.3 billion. Just over $9 billion of that money is from the federal government. The cut in General Fund support for the department ordered in HB1 as it left the committee would leave state tax dollar support for LDH at $1.86 billion.

Rep. Valerie Hodges of Denham Springs might have introduced what could become the most contentious amendment to the budget. Hodge authored a proposal that became Amendment 13 in the committee's package. It would take $190 million from the recently authorized $1.6 billion federal disaster aid for homeowners and redirect it to the Comite River diversion project which has been on the books for nearly two decades.

Aid for Acadiana homeowners affected by the August 2016 floods is included in that HUD relief package that Hodge wants to tap for the flood control project. The language of the amendment says that the money would be diverted to this use only "if eligible under federal law and regulations through the Community Development Block Grant Program."

The governor's office announced its opposition to the change saying it could slow the process of getting funds to homeowners while permission from HUD to shift the funds is sought. Governor Edwards is seeking separate federal funding for that project.

HB1 as amended is scheduled for debate by the full House on Thursday.

Sponsored by