The Independent

House, Senate budget impasse about partisanship, not money House budget hardliners are trying to impose their will on the Senate where partisanship does not rule

by Mike Stagg

The House's opening gambit in budget negotiations with the Senate reveals that the GOP Caucus, which imposed its will on the House, is trying to do the same to the Senate. The Senate, though, was nearly unanimous in its rejection of the House version of the state budget.

Members of the House submitted an "offer sheet" to the Senate delineating how the House wants to reconcile the restoration of cuts to HB1 made in the House. So far, the Senate is balking at the austerity.
Reader Submitted

The opening gambit by the House in negotiations with the Senate over their budget differences has gotten an icy response from the Senate leadership, according to legislators with knowledge of the talks.

The House offer, contained in a sheet submitted to Sen. Eric Lafleur (detail above; see full sheet at the bottom of this story), proposes cutting $154 million of the roughly $220 million the Senate added to HB1 when it voted last Saturday. Lafleur was quoted in The Advocate as saying that the House offer would not be acceptable to the Senate, which voted 36-1 to approve its version of HB1.

The Independent has contacted Sen. Lafleur for comment on the budget negotiations but he had not responded as of press time.

At the core of the division on the budget are two starkly different views of the budget itself. The House GOP Caucus, led by Rep. Lance Harris, decided prior to the start of the session that they were going to apply a formula to the budget to determine what they would and would not fund.

The work was carried out primarily in the House Appropriations Committee, but also in GOP Caucus teams that did detailed work on spending and revenue prior to the start of the session, according to Harris and House Appropriations chair Rep. Cameron Henry. The budget approved by the House was based on spending 97.5 percent of the general fund dollars the Revenue Estimating Conference projects the state will bring in during the fiscal year that begins on July 1.

In addition to cutting $237 million from the executive budget submitted by the Edwards administration, House Appropriations set as off limits certain areas within department budgets that could not be touched. In the budget for the Louisiana Department of Health, that had the effect of amplifying the size of the cuts needed to comply with HB1 because of the large role federal dollars play in funding the department's operation primarily through Medicaid.

LDH Secretary Rebekah Gee told Senate Finance that the House version of HB1 would force a total cut of $920 million in her department through a combined loss of state and federal funding.

The Senate Finance Committee recoiled at the cuts forced by the House. Although the committee is chaired by Democrat Lafleur, seven of its 11 full-time members are Republicans.

The House formulaic approach to the budget has a blind spot when it comes to impact and it was too much for Republican members of the committee and the full Senate to allow to remain in place. The committee and the full Senate voted to use 100 percent of the REC revenue projection as the basis for the budget which enabled many of the House-made cuts to be restored.

Sen. Eric Lafleur
Photo by Robin May

The House proposal sent to Lafleur would eliminate the Senate plan to provide a pay raise to state civil service workers. In the Senate floor debate on HB1, Sen. Lafleur told his colleagues that the raise aims to slow the attrition rate at which the state loses employees primarily due to the low levels of pay offered. The plan approved by the Senate would grant larger raises to low level employees and smaller raises to those with higher salaries. The total cost of the plan is $18.9 million.

It proposes cutting LDH by $65.6 million instead of the original $234 million. It would cut DCFS by $13 million. It would cut higher education by $19.4 million. It would cut Corrections by $17.8 million, more than was cut in the original House version of the bill.

House leaders handling the negotiations, presumably Harris and Henry, do not appear to comprehend how strongly the Senate's support for the upper chamber's version of HB1 is. One senator, speaking to The Independent on condition of anonymity, recounted an encounter between a House negotiator and Senate President John Alario.

"He asked Alario to give him his offer sheet," the Senator recounted. "Alario said, 'What do you mean by an offer sheet? We sent you our budget. That's what we're offering.'"

"There is a growing impression in our side of the Capitol that those House guys are nuts," the Senator said.

The House approved HB1 and rejected the Senate's amended version of it in a mostly party line vote. But between the two votes — the first on May 4 and the second on June 5 — the House has been roiled by tensions that have flowed from the partisan manner in which the budget process was run there. Criticism of Speaker Taylor Barras and his apparent lack of power (at least as compared to Harris and Henry) hase been made loudly and publicly inside and outside the chamber.

Speaker of the House Taylor Barras
Photo by Robin May

The vote to reject the Senate amendments to HB1 was, in essence, a freebie for GOP Caucus members. It was expected and the leadership could make that call on its members without encountering much blow back. But, in the final hours of the session, with the Senate standing firm on its own version of an austere budget, the test will now be how many members of the House GOP Caucus will be willing to risk crashing the budget in the name of party unity.

It will be the true and perhaps final test of whether the brute partisanship that Harris has brought to the budget fight in the name of legislative independence this year can survive beyond this session.

The House and the Senate were scheduled to reconvene at 2 p.m. and 2:30 p.m. respectively.

The session must end by 6 p.m. on Thursday. If there is no agreement on the budget and three other essential bills, Gov. John Bel Edwards has called a provisional special session which would begin at 6:30 on Thursday and run through June 19.