June 2, 2017 10:33 AM

Louisiana senators on Thursday revealed their $29 billion state operating budget proposal for next year, using more dollars than their counterparts in the House wanted, to spare colleges, prisons, veterans programs and the child welfare agency from cuts.

The TOPS free college tuition program would remain at full financing, as the House proposed. But the spending plan for the financial year that begins July 1, which received the unanimous backing of the Senate Finance Committee, contains fewer cuts than the House wanted.

"I think we're in much better shape the way this is coming out of our committee than probably the way that we received it," said Finance Chairman Eric LaFleur, a Democrat from Ville Platte.

The House wanted to leave $206 million unspent, because GOP leaders there believe that state income estimates may be too rosy, forcing midyear cuts later if all the dollars are used. But Gov. John Bel Edwards and state agency leaders said without that money, prisoners would be released early, health programs would shutter and critical services would be damaged.

House Republican leaders suggested those were scare tactics, but senators — both Republican and Democrat — said they worried about the impact of the House proposal.

Senators are proposing to use all the available dollars and reshuffled some other money. They reversed some cuts proposed by Edwards and made reductions elsewhere.

They're recommending, in a separate bill, to use $80 million of the unspent cash to fill gaps in this year's budget that the House didn't address — such as shortfalls in payments to sheriffs for housing state inmates in their local jails and to K-12 public school districts. Without filling those gaps, senators said, the obligations wouldn't go way, and the state agencies that owe them would just have to cut into next year's budget to pay for them.

"I think this is a very responsible approach," said Sen. Sharon Hewitt, a Slidell Republican. "I think that we made some good decisions.”

Health spending would fall below the level Edwards sought but above the House proposal. With the Senate version, mental health services for children and adults would face reductions that the health department said would limit access to services and tighten criteria for who receives care through the programs.

The cuts worried Democratic Sen. Regina Barrow, whose Baton Rouge district was heavily damaged by flooding last summer, because she said counseling and treatment needs are great in the region.

"I'm struggling with fully funding TOPS at the expense of health care, especially mental health," Barrow said. "I'm very concerned about the implications."

Payments to the private operators of the state's safety-net hospitals and services for the poor and uninsured also would drop next year, thought senators added money to shield rural hospitals from cuts.

Expecting pushback from House lawmakers, LaFleur defended the Senate approach: "This is a budget that has a great deal of austerity in it."

Edwards issued a statement supporting the Senate version of the spending plans. The Democratic governor described it as "an appropriate spending plan that better funds the state's priorities, such as children and family services, health care and TOPS, while also making meaningful cuts in state spending.

"Make no mistake, this budget will still impose painful spending cuts," he said. "But it does so in way that won't overly burden citizens of the state."

The full Senate intends to debate the spending plans Saturday. Lawmakers have until June 8 to work out a final deal before the session ends. If the House and Senate can't reach an agreement before adjournment, Edwards has scheduled a special legislative session to begin 30 minutes later.