La. House panel advances $25 billion state budget

After weeks of hearings, Gov. Bobby Jindal’s $25 billion proposed state spending plan inched forward Monday at the State Capitol.

The House Appropriations Committee advanced House Bill 1 — the state operating budget for the fiscal year that starts in July — after making a few changes to it.

The legislation now contains aid for a financially strapped health care program in the New Orleans area. The committee directed dollars to the disabled and students with learning challenges. Funding gaps were filled for public schools, a college tuition program and prisoner housing.

“We ran out of money some time ago,” Appropriations Committee Chairman Jim Fannin, R-Jonesboro, said at one point, as legislators proposed amendment after amendment.

Shortfalls in public school funding, the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students and prisoner housing presented the biggest challenge to the committee.

The gaps opened up after Jindal presented his budget proposal to legislators. In essence, for various reasons, the governor didn’t budget enough for some areas of state government.

A trust fund for the elderly that helps with nursing home expenses is hovering on empty.

The state’s number crunchers made a $40 million mistake in tax amnesty program calculations. A $50 million shortfall opened up in the public schools’ budget. Leftover hurricane dollars are supposed to help pay for prison workers’ retirement costs.

TOPS needs an additional $15 million. Sheriffs will need another $7 million to house inmates in parish prisons.

“You will find fixes,” Fannin told legislators as they flipped through 10 pages of amendments aimed at resolving some of the problems.

To deal with the gaps, HB1 now directs the Jindal administration to adjust spending by $76 million, reduce contracts and whittle funded but vacant job positions. “We absolutely will get to the $76 million, and we’ll do so without cuts to service,” vowed Commissioner of Administration Kristy Nichols, the governor’s chief budget adviser.

As the budget stands now, Jindal would be able to keep some promises despite the unexpected funding gaps.

The committee kept intact pay raises for state workers and a new $40 million workforce training initiative at public colleges and universities. Questions arose earlier in session about whether those commitments could be met.

The Jindal administration didn’t like all of the committee’s tinkering.

Legislators were unhappy with the governor’s proposal to take money from the New Orleans Convention Center and replenish it with state construction dollars.

The committee decided to let the convention center keep its $50 million despite Nichols voicing concerns about the impact to the state budget.

Committee members also addressed some of the concerns raised by citizens.

The Greater New Orleans Community Health Connection, which covers residents who fall below the poverty line but whose income is too high for the relatively stringent requirements to enroll in the state’s Medicaid program, is running out of money. GNOCHC helps support 18 clinics in the New Orleans area. The well could run dry by August.

The Jindal administration didn’t put dollars on the table for GNOCHC in next year’s budget. The governor also rejected a Medicaid program expansion that would cover the connection’s patients.

The committee directed the Jindal administration to find $4 million for GNOCHC.

“It’s something that’s critical to our region. It’s critical to the people in our area,” said state Rep. Helena Moreno, D-New Orleans.

GNOCHC provides health services to about 53,000 enrollees through dozens of clinics in the region. More than 50 percent of the enrollees are in Orleans Parish.

Moreno and state Rep. Franklin Foil, R-Baton Rouge, successfully addressed other programs sputtering from low cash levels.

Earlier in the session, a former college baseball player and a retired Catholic priest asked legislators to find money for programs important to them.

The former player, Eric Searcy, found help through Louisiana Assistive Technology Access Network after a drunk driver left him partially paralyzed.

The retired priest, the Rev. Patrick Mascarella, urged legislators to increase funding for Louisiana Rehabilitation Services, which helps people with disabilities live independently. Mascarella is legally blind and relies on his guide dog, Pace.

Moreno sponsored an amendment to take $762,000 from a youth program and the Louisiana Tax Commission, instead directing those dollars to Louisiana Rehabilitation Services. She said the money can be used to draw down federal dollars.

Foil tackled LATAN and the School Choice Pilot Program. He directed $250,000 to LATAN — half of what the group requested to buy tools to help the disabled live independently by letting them test often-expensive equipment and to arrange loans for the purchase.

Foil also shepherded a change to ensure enough funding exists for the School Choice Pilot Program, which helps children with challenges such as autism attend private schools through tuition assistance.

The state Department of Education now would have to find adequate dollars for all eligible children.

HB1 now moves to the House floor. It will be debated on May 8.

“We’ve all struggled to fulfill needs,” Fannin said.