The Senate Finance Committee on Thursday afternoon unanimously approved amendments to HB1 that restore most of the most deepest cuts that were in the bill as it emerged from the House. It will take a day for the changes to be incorporated into the bill, setting up for a Saturday Senate session where the bill will be considered by the 39-member body.
Sen. Eric Lafleur, chairman of the committee, made the recommended changes that emerged as a committee consensus following more than two weeks of committee hearings on HB1 and the impact of the cuts contained in the House version.
"There is a lot of austerity in this budget," Lafleur told his committee before their final vote. He noted that every department is cut in his committee's version of the budget, although not as steeply as the House had recommended. "I think we're in much better shape the way this bill is coming out of our committee than the way we received it."
Lafleur and the committee used the only path available to them to increase the amount of money in the budget by deciding to spend 100 percent of the Revenue Estimating Committee's $9.5 billion forecast of state revenue that will come into state coffers in the fiscal year that starts on July 1. The House budget was based on 97.5 percent of that forecast. The 2.5 percent difference translates into about $240 million in additional funding which Senate Finance applied to restore cuts the House made to the Louisiana Department of Health, the Department of Children and Family Services, as well as the Department of Corrections.
The committee voted to agree with the House position of fully funding the TOPS program for higher education, and also stuck with two percent funding cuts across other state departments and agencies which the House had made.
Seven of the 11 members of the committee are Republicans. Lafleur, a Democrat, in closing remarks to the committee before they voted, commended them for the way they worked together to achieve consensus on the budget changes.
"I think the fact that we are going to approve these amendments unanimously despite the fact that we can all find things in this that we'd like to do differently is testimony to the way we have gone about our work on this bill," Lafleur said.
The 30 pages of amendments approved by the committee range from discreet number changes to striking language in the House version of HB1.
One step the committee took was to eliminate the House ban on cuts to the public/private partnerships operating what were the LSU hospitals privatized by the Jindal administration.
The Senate has already made HB1 special order of the day for Saturday. Debate and voting will take place then with the bill heading to the House.
The House will not meet on Saturday, according to Friday's Order of the Day, but will meet on Sunday. In that session, accepting or rejecting Senate changes to HB1 will be subject to a vote. It is likely the changes will be rejected. Lafleur said earlier in the week that he had been told that some House leaders had let it be known that any effort by the Senate to spend 100 percent of the REC revenue forecast would be considered "a deal breaker" on HB1.
Because no new revenue-generating bills emerged from the House during the session, senators were left with the choice of either accepting the cuts imposed by the House or choosing to appropriate a higher percentage of the REC forecast. The Finance Committee chose to use all of the revenue forecast to materialize.
The mantra of GOP Caucus leader Rep. Lance Harris and House Appropriations chair Rep. Cameron Henry has been that spending 100 percent of the REC revenue forecast would be "irresponsible." The consensus that emerged on the Senate Finance Committee after reviewing the budget produced using the House GOP's 97.5 percent of revenue solution was that the resulting cuts were irresponsible.
The session is required to end by next Thursday, June 8, at 6 p.m. In the event the two chambers cannot agree on the budget and other major funding bills still working their way through the legislative process, Gov. John Bel Edwards has issued a provisional call for a special session that would begin at 6:30 p.m. on June 8. It would provide 11 more days for House and Senate leaders to try to find agreement on those bills, all of which need to be in place when the state's new fiscal year begins on July 1.