The fight over the state budget for the fiscal year that begins on July 1 will intensify on Thursday as the Senate Finance Committee begins to take votes on changes in the bill that was approved by the House four weeks ago.
The committee was scheduled to convene after the full Senate adjourned from its session that started at 9:30 Thursday morning. The schedule changed during the morning. The committee was set to convene at 1:30. The Senate temporarily adjourned and is scheduled to return to work at 3 p.m., meaning the committee will have to shut down to attend the remainder of that session.
The committee heard more than two weeks of testimony about HB1 as it emerged from the House. The bill makes deep cuts to the Louisiana Department of Health, the Department of Children and Family Services, and the Department of Corrections.
One of the ways the committee will likely consider alleviating some of the cuts is by basing funding on a higher percentage of the revenue forecast generated by the state's Revenue Estimating Conference, according to Sen. Finance Committee chair Eric Lafleur. Lafleur also said he's heard from some House members that basing the budget on a higher percentage of that revenue forecast would be considered a "deal killer."
Confronted with the prospect of a deepening stalemate, Gov. John Bel Edwards issued a provisional call for a special session that would go into effect 30 minutes after the end of the current session next Thursday, June 8, if the House and Senate have not been able to reach a compromise on four essential state funding bills that remain in limbo as of Thursday.
The four bills are the state operating budget (HB1), the Capital Outlay program (HB2), the bond authorization bill that is needed to fund the Capital Outlay bill (HB3), and a supplemental appropriations bill to address budget issues in the current fiscal year (HB621), which has not yet been considered by the House Appropriations Committee.
House Republican leaders adopted a 97.5 percent solution to address the state's recurring series of mid-year revenue shortfalls, rather than raise additional revenue as had been sought by Gov. John Bel Edwards. The House leaders agreed prior to the start of the session that the budget that would emerge from the chamber which they control would be based on a percentage of the annual revenue estimate made by the Revenue Estimating Conference for the next fiscal year.
GOP Caucus leader Rep. Lance Harris called the budget a "standstill budget" that would require departments and agencies to operate within constraints of the budget as it stood after the special session earlier this year. LDH Secretary Rebekah Gee and DCFS Secretary Marketa Garner Walters told Senate Finance Committee members that the resulting cuts to their respective agencies would be amplified by the loss of federal funds that would disappear without the roughly 35 percent state match to draw down those funds.
Gee said the $234 million cut in state funding contained in HB1 would produce an actual cut of $920 million because of the attendant loss of federal funding that it would cause.
Walters told the committee that the cuts ordered in HB1 would force the state to withdraw from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. She said withdrawal from SNAP would mean the state would not be eligible for DSNAP — the disaster food assistance program that helped more than 480,000 Louisiana residents affected by natural disasters in 2016.
While attention in Senate Finance has focused on the cuts in HB1 what has not emerged is a clear sense of where the committee itself falls on the budget in general and the need for revenue.
Because constitutionally all revenue measures must originate in the House, the Senate cannot initiate a tax increase. The House has not approved any significant revenue producing tax measures in this session. The only alternative for the Senate is to base the budget using a higher percentage of REC projections.
The House Republican majority is intent on exerting its will on the budget process. Henry made that point in an interview with The Independent shortly after the House approved HB1 and sent it to the Senate.
"The goal is to make Louisiana more like other states," Henry said. "In other states, the Legislatures are where the power over the budget is."
Despite the fact that the power is being exerted by a Republican House at the expense of the goals of a Democratic governor, Henry insists that it is not a partisan enterprise. "I think that even if Sen. [David] Vitter had been elected, I think he would have faced the same problems with this House. As a body, we have all decided that we are tired of the old way of doing things."
Having defeated the governor's revenue initiatives, the test now is whether the House can bend the Senate to its will as well. The answer will become clear over the next seven days.