Lawmakers push forward $25 billion budget

As LSU battled for the SEC Tournament Championship on Sunday, the Senate Finance Committee was at the State Capitol unraveling much of the Louisiana House’s work on the $25 billion state spending plan.

Out went $63 million in cuts to contracts, state government jobs, overtime and technology expenses. Out went reductions to economic development programs. Out went some of the extra money for the disabled community.

Additions included $4.5 million for a Verizon IndyCar Series race at the NOLA Motorsports Park in Jefferson Parish. Gov. Bobby Jindal had committed to find the money for facility and track improvements.

“We’re taking money away from the disabled community and giving it to motor sports?” state Sen. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge, asked Sunday night as he thumbed through 47 pages of amendments.

The committee’s chairman, state Sen. Jack Donahue, jumped in when a Senate aide gave Claitor a vague answer about the funding being part of the overall plan.

“The answer to your question, Sen. Claitor, is ‘yes.’ Alright, any other questions?” said Donahue, R-Mandeville.

Claitor was the only committee member who voted against the sweeping amendments. On a vote of 10-1, the committee approved the changes to House Bill 1, the state operating budget for the fiscal year that starts in July. The bill now goes to the Senate floor for debate.

The state budget funds schools, hospitals, prisons and other public expenses. The House had to fill a number of funding gaps. Jindal didn’t include enough money for public schools or the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students, also called TOPS.

To deal with the gaps, the House directed the Jindal administration to adjust spending by roughly $70 million, reduce contracts and whittle job positions. Kept intact were pay raises for state workers and a new $40 million workforce training initiative at public colleges and universities.

The Senate Finance Committee typically works on the budget over Memorial Day weekend. This year was no different.

Legislators, lobbyists and cabinet secretaries stood outside the committee room while Senate staff cranked up the copying machine for the lengthy amendments. Donahue joked that the amendments still were warm once they made it into legislators’ hands.

The bill still directs the Jindal administration to make more than $70 million in overall reductions to balance the budget. However, additional reductions to overtime, contracts, jobs and other expenses vanished for fear they would fall too heavily on health care and higher education.

The committee was able to erase those cuts by bringing in newly recognized state revenue and by relying on the Jindal administration’s cost cutting ideas.

The Jindal administration hired Alvarez and Marsal to find $500 million in savings across state government. The administration offered legislators more than $70 million in ideas to use in next year’s budget.

The ideas included reducing hours at a Cameron Parish ferry that crosses the Calcasieu River and closing more than a dozen motor vehicle offices. Those ideas weren’t popular with legislators, prompting the Jindal administration to abruptly scuttle them last week.

Still on the table: Using thinner asphalt on roadways and allowing pregnant women on Medicaid to use midwives.

Donahue said legislators can keep an eye on the cost cutting moves after the session adjourns. He predicted some of the ideas will falter. “We’ll probably have meetings during the interim to make sure the cuts are proceeding as anticipated,” he said.

The Senate Finance Committee wasn’t the only panel working during the Memorial Day weekend. The Senate Committee on Revenue and Fiscal Affairs tackled House Bill 2, the state construction budget, earlier in the day.

HB2, the capital outlay budget for the fiscal year that starts in July, now contains $400 million more in projects than the state can afford. The governor would decide which projects move forward.

The Senate Committee on Revenue and Fiscal Affairs spent little time on the legislation, quickly advancing it to the full Senate after tacking on 67 pages of amendments.

The $5.7 billion, multi-year budget already was overcommitted when it reached the committee. The overage quickly swelled to $400 million.

Among the projects added: $6 million in improvements to the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, $3.5 million for a New Orleans airport study and $1 million to renovate A.O. Williams Hall at Baton Rouge’s Southern University.

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