$24.6 billion spending plan zips through Senate to House

The state Senate zipped through the $24.6 billion proposed state spending plan in less than 90 minutes Wednesday, sending it back to the Louisiana House with five days remaining in the session.

House Bill 1 — the state operating budget for the fiscal year that starts in July — sparked little debate other than local squabbles. The Senate started reviewing the 333-page bill in the middle of the afternoon, as the sun poked through the clouds after a stormy day.

In years past, the budget debate would consume much of the day. On a 37-1 vote, the Senate returned HB1 to the House.

A number of the people watching the debate wore yellow T-shirts to express their support for funding that helps the disabled. Over the Memorial Day weekend, a Senate committee stirred up families by deleting added funding for the disabled and inserting $4.5 million for an IndyCar race.

Smiling broadly, state Sen. Mike Walsworth, R-West Monroe, made a beeline Wednesday toward a cluster of people wearing yellow shirts in the Senate chamber. Walsworth promised the Senate would take care of them.

Moments later, the Senate added back $1.2 million to help families struggling to cope with developmental disabilities. Most of the money went to a program that helps developmentally disabled people who are trying to remain in their family home. The program might pay to modify a vehicle for a wheelchair or help provide personal attendants.

“Anything done (to) the disabled has been restored,” Walsworth said, lamenting the bad publicity the reductions generated.

State Sen. Jack Donahue, R-Mandeville, said the funding was cut in an effort to trim amendments added by individual legislators. He said no one intended to hurt the disabled community. “We never said we were not going to fund those things,” Donahue said.

The House now gets a budget plan that is remarkably different from the one the chamber sent to the Senate.

The Senate had a philosophical difference with the House’s approach, disagreeing with plans to make $63 million in cuts to contracts, state government jobs, overtime and technology expenses. The fear was that those cuts would fall too heavily on health care and higher education.

Instead of the reductions, the Senate relied on the Jindal administration’s cost-cutting skills. Ideas such as using thinner asphalt on roadways and allowing pregnant women on Medicaid to use midwives must produce promised savings under the Senate’s approach.

The Senate also did some shuffling. The bulk of $4.5 million for a Verizon IndyCar Series race at the NOLA Motorsports Park in Jefferson Parish now would be paid out of the state’s megafund, which provides incentives for economic development projects.

For the most part, Donahue zipped through the budget as he described each state agency’s funding structure to his colleagues. Where the Senate argued was on local issues.

East Baton Rouge Parish Mayor-President Kip Holden started visiting the Senate this week, after a Senate committee redirected $100,000 from a parish community improvement fund to the St. George Fire Department for hazardous material training and equipment. Holden was in the chamber Wednesday, talking to former colleagues.

Soon, state Sen. Sharon Broome, D-Baton Rouge, was at the podium on the Senate floor, asking to nix the $100,000 for the St. George Fire Department. Broome also fought efforts to set up a municipal framework this session for a city of St. George. She said her opposition Wednesday stemmed from the redirection not being allowable.

State Sen. Bodi White, R-Central, battled back, protesting that he just wanted to help a fire department that is in a jam. White said the city-parish annexed the Mall of Louisiana, taking millions of dollars in revenue from a potential city of St. George.

“All I did was help the Fire Department,” he said.

The Senate sided with White, keeping the $100,000 intact for the St. George Fire Department.

State Sen. Karen Peterson, D-New Orleans, asked the Senate to withdraw $1 million from the megafund and give it to the New Orleans Police and Justice Foundation. She said her city is awash in violence.

“Young people are dying,” she said. “They’re dying every week. Horrible deaths.”

The Senate soundly rejected the amendment with only five legislators supporting it.

Follow Michelle Millhollon on Twitter, @mmillhollon. For more coverage of Louisiana government and politics, follow our Politics Blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog/