May 30, 2017 11:30 AM

After two weeks of hearings on the state budget bill approved by the House, the Senate Finance Committee will recommend its changes to the bill on Wednesday

Senate Finance Committee chair Eric Lafleur
Photo by Robin May

After two weeks of detailed hearings on HB1 as it was approved by the House, the Senate Finance Committee will recommend its changes in the bill when it meets on Wednesday morning, according to committee chair Sen. Eric Lafleur.

Lafleur and his committee colleagues gave HB1 the kind of detailed examination that the House Appropriations Committee did not prior to its approval of the bill on May 1. For two weeks heads of state agencies and departments went before Senate Finance to explain the impact of HB1 on the operation of their respective entity.

The House Appropriations Committee approved a budget based on 97.5 percent of the revenue forecast to be available to the state in the coming fiscal year by the Revenue Estimating Conference. The 97.5 percent figure was a figure developed by GOP Caucus chair Rep. Lance Harris of Alexandria and Appropriations chair Rep. Cameron Henry of Metairie.

The two lawmakers told The Independent that their primary objective was to break the state's long streak of having to make mid-year budget cuts which all parties agree amplify the damage caused by the state's revenue shortage by forcing a year's worth of cuts into a half year of the budget cycle.

"We started from the premise that there is only one certainty in the budget process and that is that the number from the REC will not be accurate," Henry told The Independent. "When you start with that fact, it is irresponsible to base your budget on spending 100 percent of that wrong number."

The Appropriations Committee imposed substantial cuts on the Louisiana Department of Health, the Department of Children and Family Services and the Department of Corrections.

As was revealed in testimony in Senate Finance, those departments were not allowed to provide input to the committee on the impact of the cuts. They were given that opportunity in Senate Finance. The picture was not pretty.

Under the state Constitution, all revenue measures must originate in the House. So far, no tax proposals of any significance have emerged from the House, meaning that the Senate will have to deal with HB1 pretty much as the House has dealt it.

The Senate does have some wiggle room based on the percentage of the REC estimate used by the House. Lafleur has raised that possibility as has Senate President John Alario. Lafleur was quoted over the weekend as saying he's been told by some in the House that using a higher percentage of the REC estimate to free up more money for spending is "a deal breaker" for some in the House.

Based on testimony and comments made during Senate Finance's two weeks of hearings, many of the cuts forced by the House's approach to HB1 are equally unacceptable.

Senate Finance was scheduled to beginning meeting on Tuesday at noon. HB1 is on the agenda, but Lafleur told The Independent that the committee will deal with the other bills on its agenda today and focus on changing HB1 on Wednesday.

It could take a day or two for the Legislative Bureau to make all the changes in HB1 that Senate Finance is likely to make. Whether the bill can be turned around by Thursday, as Lafleur predicted on Saturday, remains to be seen. Thursday will mark 28 days since the House approved HB1. Changes made by the Senate must be sent back to the full House for concurrence. The changes will be rejected.

A conference committee comprisingan equal number of House and Senate members will then meet behind closed doors to begin negotiating on a compromise budget.

Speaker Taylor Barras is holding the weekend days open for possible full sessions. Neither body must be in session for the conference committee to meet.

The House has been riven by tensions that have grown all session. They began with the manner in which HB1 was handled by the GOP Caucus and by Henry's Appropriations Committee. Details of the impact of the cuts that would be imposed by a budget based on the GOP's 97.5 percent funding formula were not made explicit at any point in the process on the House side. The details only emerged in Senate Finance.

Meanwhile there have been a number of eruptions of anger in the House since the budget moved to the Senate. The first came when the House approved HB71 by Shreveport Rep. Thomas Carmody dealing with the removal of Confederate monuments. The second came last week when Democrats blocked HB3, which provides funding for the Capital Outlay bill. (Because it is a revenue bill, a two-thirds vote in support is required for approval.) Democrats said they took the step in retaliation for the GOP majority shutting them out of the budget process.

House GOP leaders have since threatened to kill the Justice Reinvestment criminal justice reform bills. The bills were pulled from House consideration on Thursday and do not appear at all on today's Order of the Day for House action.

The debate over a compromise HB1 will take place in this already volatile environment in the House. But, first a compromise will have to be reached. Cameron Henry, as chairman of Appropriations, will be part of the House conference committee team. Lafleur will be part of the Senate team. The other members will be chosen by Speaker Barras and President Alario. If a compromise can be reached, it will not come without several days of negotiating, putting votes in the House and Senate around mid-week.

The session is required to end by 6 p.m. on Thursday, June 8. If the House and Senate cannot agree on a compromise budget before then, a special session focused on the budget will need to be convened.

The current fiscal year ends on June 30. The next fiscal year begins on July 1. The state cannot operate without a budget in place.

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