HB1, the state budget bill approved by the House of Representatives earlier in this session, will be the primary focus of the Senate Finance Committee starting on Tuesday. Committee chairman Sen. Eric Lafleur of Ville Platte says he wants to hear from state department heads about the impact of HB1 on their operations. The committee convened on Monday morning to deal with an agenda dotted with other bills that have funding components attached to them.
"We got the bill last week," Lafleur says. He spoke with The Independent by phone on Monday morning. "We basically looked at it but didn't do any substantive work on it. That will start on Tuesday. The committee will work through the weekend on the bill."
Lafleur says the committee will not meet on Saturday, as had frequently been the case during the Jindal years, where people from various affected communities would beseech the committee then chaired by Mandeville Sen. Jack Donahue to restore funding for critical programs that had been slashed by the House. Lafleur says the Finance Committee will meet on Sunday.
"I want to bring in the department heads to hear from them how HB1 as passed by the House will affect them," Lafleur says. "The Appropriations Committee must have heard from the department heads before the session started, but I don't think they had an opportunity to talk about the impact of the budget as it was adopted."
Lafleur says that while HB1 is technically a balanced budget (Rep. Lance Harris and Rep. Cameron Henry say it actually produces a surplus for the state at the end of the next fiscal year, if revenue projections hold), he says the bill ignores the fact that the state has a $400 million deficit in the current year budget.
"What they're doing is rolling the current deficit into the next fiscal year," Lafleur says. He says it will be interesting to see what the House passes in terms of a supplemental appropriations bill to cover some items that the state can't put off paying, such as adjustments in the Minimum Foundation funding program for K-12 education and funding for the housing of prisoners. Both of those items are based on the total head count of students and prisoners, respectively.
Lafleur also says that the state has certain obligations resulting from its participation in federal programs that fall to it under federal rules. "We can't ignore those obligations," Lafleur declares.
One of the bills Lafleur's committee will consider today is SB54 by Sen. Beth Mizell of Franklinton. The bill deals with children who have been the victims of sexual and/or labor exploitation. The bill would transfer responsibility for addressing the needs of these children from the Department of Public Safety and Corrections to the Department of Children and Family Services.
Mizell heavily amended her bill before it got to Senate Judiciary A Committee last week, explaining to The Independent in a phone interview on Thursday that DCFS insisted on changes in the language of the bill to give the department some leeway on mandates contained in Mizell's original bill.
"The department insisted on putting qualifying language in the bill to provide them outs in case their budgets did not give them the means to respond to these children," Mizell says, adding that there are faith-based resources around the state that can provide shelter for children in those circumstances but DCFS would be required to act as the coordinator of services under her bill.
"I know some of these children have been hardened by the lives they have led, but I don't believe we can just do nothing," Mizell says.
"I believe we have a moral obligation to provide care for those who can't take care of themselves and I believe that certainly includes children," Lafleur says. "The problem is that DCFS workers have the highest caseloads per person in the country. They try to take care of who they can to the best of their ability, but it's likely that some people are not getting cared for as well as they should."
The House Appropriations Committee cut 128 positions from the DCFS budget. Those cuts were approved by the full House.
Lafleur says that positions are services in departments like DCFS.
"DCFS is the department of people," Lafleur explains. "They work on a person-to-person basis with people to place them in circumstances where they can be be protected from harm. When you cut staffing, you cut the ability of the department to respond to people. All it will take is one horrific story for this to become clear."
Lafleur says he expects the Senate's work on HB1 to produce a bill that better reflects the priorities of voters, not just Gov. Edwards.
"The House is by nature more parochial," says Lafleur who served two terms in the House before winning election to his Senate seat in 2007. "Their districts are smaller and more homogenous. Senate districts are larger and more diverse, so we tend to take a broader view of things. I think that's what you'll see reflected in the budget that emerges from the Senate."