House approves $25 billion state budget

by Patrick Flanagan

A nearly $25 billion budget for next year that includes Gov. Bobby Jindal's proposals for new spending on health care, colleges and state worker pay won passage Thursday from the Louisiana House.

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - A nearly $25 billion budget for next year that includes Gov. Bobby Jindal's proposals for new spending on health care, colleges and state worker pay won passage Thursday from the Louisiana House.

Lawmakers sidestepped concerns about the federal rejection of financing for the LSU hospital privatization deals already put in place by Jindal and largely funded with federal money. They made no changes to the plans.

The House voted 65-34 for the 2014-15 budget after seven hours of debate and a flurry of mostly modest alterations, sending the bill next to the Senate for consideration.

Appropriations Committee Chairman Jim Fannin, who handles the budget bill, talked of the state's ongoing money problems, saying balancing the spending plan for the fiscal year that begins July 1 was difficult.

"It's not always a joy ... to be able to have to say no when it comes to extra spending or additional spending," Fannin, R-Jonesboro, said. "We try to match it as best as we can with the needs of this state."

Jindal proposed his budget in January. As the House Appropriations Committee reviewed the proposal agency by agency, holes appeared. Tax amnesty proceeds were double-counted, the public school formula didn't have enough money to pay for all students, and the free college tuition program called TOPS was short.

Lawmakers filled those gaps while removing $101 million in patchwork funding that Jindal wanted to use to balance the budget that won't reappear a year later.

To make the numbers work, lawmakers proposed new cuts in state contracts, reductions across agencies and removal of funding for vacant jobs so departments won't be able to fill them. The Jindal administration would have to determine how to divvy up the slashing.

On top of those cuts, another $76 million would be cut across departments, slashing that Jindal's top budget adviser, Commissioner of Administration Kristy Nichols, said can be done without shrinking services, by using the "efficiency" recommendations of a consulting firm.

Rep. John Bel Edwards, D-Amite, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, pressed for more details about how those cuts would be rolled out across agencies.

"We all like saving money, but we may not like what they're doing to save that money. But we don't have that information when we're asked to vote," said Edwards, who voted against the bill.

Concerns were repeatedly raised about the implications of the federal decision against the Jindal administration's funding plans for the hospital privatization deals.

Despite the worries, lawmakers in the House refused to change course, blocking efforts by Rep. Robert Johnson, D-Marksville, to stop the last privatization deal in Pineville.

"We were duped through these public-private partnerships," Johnson said.

Rep. Lance Harris, R-Alexandria, said the shift of health care management to private hospital and clinic operators is improving care and providing new services to the poor and uninsured.

"I believe they will be very satisfied," said Harris, the Republicans' leader in the House.

The Jindal administration intends to appeal the federal ruling and is negotiating alternative hospital financing plans with federal officials.

"Our hope is we will have a resolution with (the federal Medicaid agency) in the very near future," state Department of Health and Hospitals Secretary Kathy Kliebert told the House.

Among the changes approved on the House floor, $4.5 million in cuts to private hospitals were reversed, $6 million was added to community clinics in New Orleans and $2 million was stripped from the state's voucher program and moved to help local school districts improve their technology.

Another $14 million that Jindal had proposed to expand technical courses and special education for elementary and secondary schools was shifted to help local school systems pay for increased retirement costs.