House advances spending plan

For seven hours Thursday, the Louisiana House debated Common Core, school vouchers, art, private prisons, health care clinics and other planks in the $25 billion state operating budget.

House members made a few changes, took the generally unprecedented step of calling a cabinet secretary to the floor, then voted 65-34 in favor of House Bill 1, the spending plan for the fiscal year that starts in July. The state Senate now gets its chance to tackle the budget.

“It’s been a long day. I appreciate your patience. The debate is all about what we do down here,” said state Rep. Jim Fannin, D-Jonesboro, and the budget bill’s sponsor.

Representatives added money for health clinics across the state, refused to plump up the need-based Go Grants program, capped vouchers, found dollars for technical upgrades at public schools and made a tweak to the controversial Common Core program. An amendment to unravel the closure of Pineville’s Huey P. Long Medical Center failed despite problems with Gov. Bobby Jindal’s hospital privatization plans.

Going agency by agency, the House reviewed a mammoth budget that funds hospitals, schools and other public expenses. The stalling points were the health care and education portions of the spending plan.

As silly as legislators can get on the House floor — popping rubber bands and playing music into their microphones — their ornate, marble chamber is tightly controlled. Only legislators are supposed to step behind the podium on the House floor, unless the governor is delivering a speech to open session.

Representatives made an exception Thursday for state Department of Health and Hospitals Secretary Kathy Kliebert. Kliebert was summoned to answer questions about the federal government’s rejection of the Jindal administration’s hospital privatization plans.

The governor is in the process of closing charity hospitals or putting them in the hands of private hospitals. He contends it would be cheaper for private hospitals to care for patients.

The federal government objected to the administration accepting $311 million in advance lease payments from the hospitals.

Kliebert assured the House that conversations are going well with the federal government. She admitted, however, that the appeal of the rejection could take a year, creating the possibility of a resolution arriving after Jindal has left office. Her aides later emphasized to reporters that a year is the worst-case scenario for the time line.

Kliebert told lawmakers that the Jindal administration has a good argument to make in overturning the rejection.

“The same people telling me we had a successful meeting and a path forward are the same people telling me the plan would be approved,” complained state Rep. John Bel Edwards, D-Amite.

On another health care issue, the House steered more money toward the Greater New Orleans Community Health Connection — an organization that 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 — which is running out of money. GNOCHC helps support 18 clinics in the New Orleans area. The well could run dry by August.

The House Appropriations committee already directed the Jindal administration to find $4 million for GNOCHC. The House voted, without objection, to carve out another $6.1 million.

“We need $10 million annually to fund this program. That would make us whole,” said state Rep. Helena Moreno, D-New Orleans.

The House also spent $6.1 million in federal funds on federally qualified health centers that treat the uninsured. The money would help 143 clinics in rural areas.

“We’re not trying to fool you with this. We’re just trying to keep those clinics open,” said state Rep. Jack Montoucet, D-Crowley.

The House also demanded that a contract to find millions of dollars in savings across state government be ready by July, spurning the Jindal administration’s request for an extra few months. Legislators found more money for the University of Louisiana at Monroe’s pharmacy school but rejected an extra $500,000 for the Pennington Biomedical Research Center. The amount of money for vouchers that send children to private schools was capped in order to free up dollars for technology needs at public schools.

The House nixed pay raises for private prison workers overseeing state inmates and scolded state Rep. Jay Morris, R-Monroe, for trying to divert state dollars from the George Rodrigue Foundation for the Arts to art-related educational activities in north Louisiana.

Toward the end of the debate, the controversial Common Core standards raised their head after much scurrying between the House floor and the nearby amendment preparation room.

Earlier this session, legislators rejected bills to scrap the standards and to drop plans for exams crafted by a consortium called the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC. The issue didn’t die.

State Rep. Brett Geymann, R-Lake Charles, offered a different proposal Thursday: to competitively bid college and career readiness testing given as part of Common Core. He said the amendment would not eliminate Common Core in Louisiana.

“I’ve lost the battle on getting rid of the PARCC test. You beat me,” he said. But with his new proposal, Geymann said he just wants to make sure the state gets the best financial deal possible on the tests.

The House voted 60-33 in favor of his amendment.

Afterward, State Superintendent of Education John White said the impact of Geymann’s amendment is unclear. White said the state could still continue with plans to buy the Common Core tests called PARCC.

He said if the change wins final approval, a final decision on how to proceed will be made by the state Office of Contractual Review. “If the Office of Contractual Review says it has to be competitively bid, we will, and if it can be sole source, we will,” White said.

The House kept intact a number of the governor’s initiatives. State workers still would get pay raises. A workforce program within the higher education system still would launch.

However, 34 legislators cast dissenting votes on the final product sent to the Senate.

State Rep. Ted James, D-Baton Rouge, said he voted against HB1 because it is fatally flawed. “I think this budget shortchanges Louisiana. (It) ignores the huge health care crisis Jindal created,” James said.

Geymann said he pressed his “No” button because he is concerned about the amount of one-time money in the budget for expenses that must be met year after year.

“We did not even begin to address the shortfall projected for next year of over a billion dollars. … Next year, the shortfall will be very difficult to address, and some of it should have been accounted for in this budget,” he said.

Will Sentell of the Capitol news bureau contributed to this report.