House committee reduces budget bill by $490 million

Advocate staff photo by RICHARD ALAN HANNON -- State Rep. Walt Leger III, D-New Orleans, testifies Monday in front of the House Committee on Appropriations on House Bill 452 sponsored by state Rep. Jim Fannin, D-Jonesboro.
Advocate staff photo by RICHARD ALAN HANNON -- State Rep. Walt Leger III, D-New Orleans, testifies Monday in front of the House Committee on Appropriations on House Bill 452 sponsored by state Rep. Jim Fannin, D-Jonesboro.

The House Appropriations Committee gutted roughly $500 million from the proposed state spending plan Monday in an attempt to ease the bill’s movement through the Louisiana House.

Agencies across state government would feel the reduction, with health care and higher education absorbing the biggest impact.

However, the dramatic changes to House Bill 1 are intended to be merely a tactical maneuver to push the legislation through the House and to the state Senate.

Purging one-time, or nonrecurring, dollars from the bill circumvents a House rule that makes it difficult to use that money for expenses that must be met year after year. The one-time dollars needed to be removed to prevent a stall in debate on the House floor.

“It’s all about hearing the bill,” state Rep. Jim Fannin said after the meeting.

Fannin, D-Jonesboro, sponsors the budget bill and chairs the House Appropriations Committee.

A faction of House Republicans — who call themselves the fiscal hawks — tried and failed at mustering enough support to force a floor debate on the governor cobbling together the budget partly with revenue that may or may not materialize.

Their failure allows the governor to focus on convincing the Senate to recreate the $24.7 billion state operating budget he proposed for the fiscal year that starts July 1. The governor’s spending plan banks on dollars materializing from property sales, legal settlements and other uncertain revenue sources to make the numbers work.

The committee voted 15-9 in favor of advancing the main budget bill to the full House.

“There are 105 House members that should be involved in the process and we should be seeking real solutions and not just playing games,” state Rep. Brett Geymann said later in the day.

Geymann, R-Lake Charles, is the fiscal hawks’ leader.

The committee tackled HB1, the main budget legislation, and House Bill 452, which moves money around to help balance the spending plan.

The bills were rewritten in a flurry of amendments that left House aides uncertain exactly how various agencies would be affected. One amendment redistributed the one-time dollars.

A subsequent amendment stripped the money entirely. House staff will have to reconcile the changes.

Other amendments delved into the public outcry the governor triggered by initially proposing to cut funding for battered women shelters, senior citizen centers, cancer screenings, immunizations and a program that helps elderly residents find free or discount prescription drugs.

The governor made the reductions because the state faces a $1.3 billion shortfall in the amount of money needed to keep public services at their current levels in the budget year that starts July 1.

On Monday, the committee took $18.6 million budgeted for vacant state government jobs and reversed the governor’s reductions.

State Rep. J. Rogers Pope, R-Denham Springs, tried to take even more money set aside for vacant positions. Pope wanted to take the dollars and put them toward whittling the waiting list for people with disabilities to receive services in their homes.

He said it is derelict for the state Department of Health and Hospitals not to do more to help people who have been on a waiting list for nearly 10 years.

Fannin told him the committee already spent the dollars budgeted for vacancies.

“There’s no money left,” he said.

Pope withdrew his amendment.

State Rep. Patricia Smith, D-Baton Rouge, dug through the budget and found what she said was a duplicative program for health and abstinence curriculum. The committee agreed to direct an additional $1.2 million toward domestic violence programs.

State Rep. Walt Leger III pushed to stymie the governor’s attempt to take $100 million from the New Orleans convention center. The governor wants to use the money for higher education.

“These funds are locally generated and I’ve held along with other members of the delegation throughout that (they were) inappropriately taken and used,” Leger, D-New Orleans, said.

The committee sided with Leger without detailing how the money would be replaced.

Fannin saved the most controversial amendment for last. He said he wanted to reduce every agency receiving discretionary state general fund money by 22 percent in order to gut the one-time money from the budget.

State Commissioner of Higher Education Jim Purcell poked his head into the committee room just as legislators were debating whether to remove the one-time dollars. Purcell promptly got called to sit before the committee and talk about the likely impact on public colleges and universities.

“My hope is that it would be resolved at another time and place in the Legislature,” he said, signaling that he expects the Senate to remedy the problem.

Voting FOR advancing HB1 (15): State Reps. Jim Fannin, D-Jonesboro; Bryan Adams, R-Terrytown; James Armes, D-Leesville; Johnny Berthelot, R-Gonzales; Robert Billiot, D-Waggaman; Jared Brossett, D-New Orleans; Henry Burns, R-Haughton; Roy Burrell, D-Shreveport; Bubby Chaney, R-Rayville; Bob Hensgens, R-Abbeville; Ted James, D-Baton Rouge; Walt Leger III, D-New Orleans; Nick Lorusso, R-New Orleans; Helena Moreno, D-New Orleans; and Ledricka Thierry, D-Opelousas.

Voting AGAINST advancing HB1 (9): State Reps. Simone Champagne, R-Jeanerette; Patrick Connick, R-Marrero; Brett Geymann, R-Lake Charles; Jack Montoucet, D-Crowley; Jim Morris, R-Oil City; J. Rogers Pope, R-Denham Springs; John Schroder, R-Covington; Alan Seabaugh, R-Shreveport; and Patricia Smith, D-Baton Rouge.