The Senate Finance Committee continues to hear about the impact of HB1 from the heads of various state agencies, but the focus has moved to testimony from leaders of the Department of Children and Family Services.
DCFS was one of three departments to take deep cuts in the proposed state budget as it was written by the House Appropriations Committee and approved by the House earlier this month. The other two were the Louisiana Department of Health and the Department of Corrections.
The Appropriations Committee recommended and the House approved the elimination of 128 now-vacant staff positions in the department as part of a $69.8 million cut imposed on the department.
"DCFS is the department of people," Finance Committee chair Sen. Eric Lafleur tells The Independent. "The work there is people intensive. It's a lot of one-on-one work. Eliminating positions will impact services. I believe we have a moral obligation to help the least of those among us and children clearly are among those we need to help and protect."
DCFS works on issues ranging from child abuse to child support enforcement to foster parenting and to dealing with the victims of human trafficking. The department secretary is Marketa Garner Walters, a long-time child welfare advocate who also worked in the administrations of Govs. Kathleen Blanco and Bobby Jindal.
As has been highlighted in other testimony before the Senate Finance Committee over the past week of hearings, DCFS and other departments were not given the opportunity to tell House Appropriations Committee members about the impact of the cuts imposed before the cuts were approved.
Lafleur's committee will likely question DCFS's leadership extensively about their current workload and the impact of the cuts on that.
"DCFS is recognized to have the heaviest case load per worker of any similar department like it in the country," Lafleur says. "These cuts will only make matters worse."
Rep. Malinda White of Bogalusa argued in the House floor debate on HB1 that the cuts will drive the already high rate of employee turnover in the department higher.
Sen. Beth Mizell wants to have DCFS take on a larger role in dealing with exploited children rather than the Department of Public Safety and Corrections. Her SB54 was heavily amended at the insistence of DCFS after HB1 passed the House because the department did not want to be saddled with additional mandates at a time when its budget was being cut.
"The amendment uses so much qualifying language — 'to the extent possible,' 'as funding allows' — that it really doesn't require them to do anything," Mizell told The Independent after her amended bill was approved by a Senate committee. "I don't believe we can't do anything. I believe we must do something."
Lafleur expects to present a revised version of HB1 to the full Senate next week, possibly on Memorial Day. Senate President John Alario has been sitting in on the committee's hearings and playing an active role in them.
House Republican Caucus leader Lance Harris of Alexandria told The Independent earlier in the session that he has been meeting on a monthly basis over the past year with his Republican colleagues in the Senate. What influence that will show on what will likely be a final budget bill brokered by a conference committee remains to be seen.
Sen. Alario has mentioned that he believes the Senate could legitimately add revenue to the budget by basing its budget on a higher percentage of the revenue estimate produced by the Revenue Estimating Conference. The House Republican leaders based their budget on 97.5 percent of the REC estimate.
Appropriations chair Rep. Cameron Henry has declared on numerous occasions that "budgeting 100 percent of what you know to be an inaccurate revenue number is irresponsible." He believes the practice has been a leading cause of the perennial mid-year budget cuts that have plagued the state in eight of the past nine years.
The Legislature must adjourn by 6 p.m. on Thursday, June 8. The budget represented by HB1 is for the fiscal year that begins on July 1.