Senate approves state budget bill

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ARTHUR D. LAUCK /
Advocate staff photo by ARTHUR D. LAUCK -- The state Senate debated Saturday Louisiana's spending plan for the fiscal year that begins July 1. Debate included a New Orleans abortion clinic, hospital contracts and other controversial issues.

Spending plan returns to House

The state Senate adopted a $25 billion state spending plan Saturday that would create one-time salary supplements for public schoolteachers and school nurses.

After 31/2 hours of debate, the Senate voted 37-1 in favor of sending House Bill 1, the main budget legislation, to the House for concurrence on the changes. How the Louisiana House will react is unclear. The document is a radical makeover of the budget the House sent the Senate in May.

Differences will need to be worked out in five days. The session ends at 6 p.m. Thursday.

The dozens of favorable votes for the bill in the Senate did not translate into resounding approval for a budget that would privatize public hospitals and transfer more public schoolchildren into private or parochial schools.

“My heart is broken that we’re so proud of a budget that is so screwed up,” state Sen. Yvonne Dorsey-Colomb told the chamber after voting in favor of HB1.

Dorsey-Colomb, D-Baton Rouge, said her favorable vote was an act of defeat.

Debate on the budget flared with controversy as legislators wrestled with abortion, vouchers and blank pages in documents that will put the private sector in charge of many public hospitals at the expense of state government jobs.

Lobbyists sprang from their seats on the sidelines to look at the voteboard as controversial amendment after controversial amendment was decided. The Jindal administration, including the governor’s chief budget adviser, chief of staff and communications director, kept an eye on proceedings from both sides of the chamber.

After the final vote, Gov. Bobby Jindal lauded the Senate in a prepared statement.

“We appreciate the work the Senate did in crafting their budget, including valuable investments in education for scholarships for children and bonus pay for teachers and school personnel. These important investments in our education system will be great for educators and students,” he said.

State Sen. Karen Peterson, D-New Orleans, cast the lone dissenting vote after characterizing the budget as a document patched together with duct tape to make it seaworthy.

“What we have in front of us is a budget by default,” she said.

Peterson’s words riled state Sen. Jack Donahue, who shepherded the budget through the state Senate.

Grabbing the microphone after Peterson spoke, he struggled to keep his voice below a shout.

“This is not a budget by default. This is a good budget, the best budget I’ve seen since I’ve been here,” said Donahue, R-Mandeville.

HB1 spells out over hundreds of pages how state government would fund public services in the fiscal year that starts in July.

On a rare weekend day of work, the Senate got to the State Capitol early and tackled the state construction budget before taking what was supposed to be a 45-minute lunch break. Lunch stretched to 2 1/2 hours as staff worked on amendments.

Senators cracked jokes about possible funding sources during the wait. Senate President John Alario, R-Westwego, huddled with legislators on the floor.

What emerged when the Senate reconvened was a budget that seems to pick a fight with the House over the use of one-time dollars for ongoing expenses.

Jindal pitched a spending plan that relied on property sales, legal settlements and other one-time dollars to fund higher education, which needs funding year after year. The House purged the dollars and made more than $100 million in spending cuts, modified tax breaks and created a tax amnesty program designed to entice taxpayers into settling disputes with the state at a reduced cost.

The Senate unraveled all but $30 million in cuts and stuffed back in most of the one-time money.

The question is whether the House will be able to spurn $50 million in teacher pay supplements, additional dollars for disabled children and extra money for the LSU and Southern University agricultural centers.

“I’m tired of people telling me it’s not a good budget,” Donahue said of the Senate’s product.

Debate leading up to the final vote often was rocky as the clock ticked closer to the time for the Baton Rouge Regional of the NCAA tournament.

State Sen. A.G. Crowe, R-Slidell, tried repeatedly to prevent the possibility of state funding for Planned Parenthood, which recently broke ground in New Orleans on a $4.2 million health center that will offer abortions.

The Senate shelved his amendments.

State Sen. Karen Peterson, D-New Orleans, objected to the health care portion of the state budget because key financial details are missing on planned privatizations of LSU public hospitals. The Jindal administration submitted dozens of blank pages for the Shreveport-Monroe hospital agreement when it went before the LSU Board of Supervisors.

“We don’t even have deals. We have blank pages,” Peterson complained before ultimately withdrawing her motion.

State Sen. Blade Morrish, R-Jennings, offered an amendment to stop an expansion in the Jindal-backed state voucher program that sends public schoolchildren to private or parochial schools.

Morrish said he wants to make sure the current program is working well before using state dollars to take thousands more students out of public schools.

Debate on the amendment drew a number of legislators to the podium on the Senate floor.

State Sen. Conrad Appel, R-Metairie, said the amendment would leave poor children mired in failing schools.

The amendment failed as the Jindal administration fired off tweets defending the program.

From the controversial debate, the Senate shifted into a happier moment by recognizing Alario’s grandson. Peterson, who found much to dislike about the budget bill, smiled and lead a chorus of “Happy Birthday” for him.