After a contentious session beset with budget battles, legislators kicked off a series of discussions Tuesday on how the state spends billions of dollars.
The meeting of the Louisiana Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget took on the structure of a school class, with state officials breaking down the $25.6 billion state operating budget through handouts and organizational charts. The hearing continues at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday.
“It’s not my thought that we’re going to finish tomorrow or anytime particularly soon,” said state Sen. Jack Donahue, R-Mandeville and the committee’s chairman.
Legislators focused their questions on the diversion of dollars and the level of state workers’ compensation.
During the session, legislators bickered with Gov. Bobby Jindal on his plan to use one-time — or nonrecurring — dollars taken from planned property sales and funds scattered across state government to pay bills that must be met year after year. A faction of legislators wanted to make spending cuts rather than rely on one-time dollars that likely will materialize only once.
Donahue said Tuesday that he wants legislators to understand the entire package, beginning with health care and higher education, which are among the largest budget units.
The state Department of Health and Hospitals, which employs thousands of people and oversees health care for more than 1 million people, was up first.
Donahue directed DHH officials to explain their budget as if legislators did not understand the process.
DHH Secretary Jerry Phillips began his presentation by explaining the various funds that are used to divvy up health care dollars.
A vital records fund uses fees from birth and death certificates to increase electronic records. An emergency medical technician fund takes dollars that motorists pay for speciality license plates to purchase equipment to test applicants for certification as emergency medical technicians.
The largest trust fund is the Louisiana Medical Assistance Trust Fund, which is used to pay for medical treatment of the poor.
For the current fiscal year that started July 1, legislators agreed to take dollars from funds scattered across state government to direct money into the Louisiana Medical Assistance Trust Fund.
State Rep. Simone Champagne, R-Jeanerette, wanted to know exactly which funds generated dollars for the trust fund.
Both Phillips and Donahue told her to look at the legislation that allowed the money to be taken.
Phillips then launched into the Nursing Home Residents Trust Fund, which uses nursing home penalties to pay for expenses such as evacuations of residents.
State Rep. Patricia Smith, D-Baton Rouge, interrupted him to ask if any dollars from the fund are being used for anything other than the intended purposes.
“Not with this fund,” Phillips said.
State Rep. Joe Harrison, R-Napoleonville, asked Phillips to identify which funds are carrying forward surpluses for years.
Phillips said DHH tries not to drain all of its trust funds.
An organizational chart showing DHH spends $344 million a year on salaries and $163 million on benefits prompted a number of questions.
Senate President John Alario, R-Westwego, said DHH now is spending nearly half of what it pays in salaries for retirement, Medicare, health insurance and other expenses that are provided as benefits to employees.
Phillips said DHH has reduced positions by 43 percent since Jindal took office in 2008.
Champagne questioned whether there has been a correlating drop in salaries.
Phillips said he did not have that information but would provide it to Champagne.
The hearing can be seen live at http://www.legis.state.la.us/.