House unhappy with Senate spending plan

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ARTHUR D. LAUCK /
Advocate staff photo by ARTHUR D. LAUCK -- Standing from left, state Reps. Jeff Thompson, R-Bossier City; Jim Morris, R-Oil City; Hunter Greene, R-Baton Rouge; Lance Harris, R-Alexandria; and Brett Geymann, R-Lake Charles, seated, confer Sunday after receiving the state budget bill from the state Senate. House Appropriations Chairman Jim Fannin, D-Jonesboro, back center, starts debate of the state supplemental budget bill.

The state Senate’s spin on the $25 billion state spending plan got unfavorable reviews Sunday from Democrats and Republicans in the Louisiana House.

Even a bonus payment the state Senate added for teachers and school nurses failed to attract the overwhelming support of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, or LFT. Instead, the union told House members that a vote against the budget would be a vote to support public schools.

Whether the unhappiness rises to the level of legislators returning to the State Capitol later this summer for a special session will be decided in the next few days.

Different factions in the Louisiana House want different things, including more funding for public schools, a reduced reliance on one-time dollars for ongoing expenses, and a revamped state budget process.

The Senate did not fulfill any of those wishes when it returned House Bill 1, the main budget legislation, to the House on Saturday. One-time dollars crept back in. Funding increased for vouchers that send public schoolchildren to private or parochial schools. The budget reform bills still are in the Senate with four days remaining in the session.

The smaller chamber did add what one House member referred to as “candy,” including a decrease in the waiting list for home-based services for disabled children and $50 million in bonuses for public school workers.

State Rep. Katrina Jackson, leader of the Legislative Black Caucus, said the bonus payment was created to pressure House members into voting in favor of the budget.

She said the Jindal administration would have input into who gets the bonuses, creating the possibility that they wouldn’t be across the board. Another problem, she said, is the question of who will pay for benefits tied to the one-time boosts.

“The amendment was discovered for what it was,” said Jackson, D-Monroe.

The LFT, one of the state’s largest teacher unions, sent a floor note to House members Sunday. The note assured legislators that a vote against the budget would not be considered a vote against teachers.

“We are not lobbying for the unknown. A one-time bonus to be distributed how, based on what, to whom? It is not a plan. It’s a spin,” LFT president Steve Monaghan said.

The dissatisfaction creates enormous uncertainty in the final week of the legislative session.

House Democratic leader John Bel Edwards, of Amite, said he would not oppose a special session to resolve problems with the state operating budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1. House Republican leader Lance Harris, of Alexandria, said he would accept a special session, if it were necessary.

“I know the feeling on the floor is people want to do what’s right for the state and the taxpayers, not what’s right for the House and the governor,” Harris said.

The House showed defiance Sunday night by voting 63-40 in favor of an amendment that would give public schools a $68 million increase in state funding. Gov. Bobby Jindal’s allies in the House opposed the amendment.

Edwards, who proposed the increase, said it would give teachers a pay raise and create a meaningful school funding boost for the first time in several years.

The amendment was added to House Bill 677, which takes care of lingering funding needs in the current budget year.

The House then rejected HB677, with 45 voting for it and 67 voting against it. The rejection adds to the uncertainty in the final days.

A vote on whether to concur with the Senate’s changes to HB1 could come Monday. A rejection would send the bill to conference committee, allowing a handful of legislators from both chambers to try to resolve the differences.

House Speaker Chuck Kleckley, R-Lake Charles, said he has not yet decided whether HB1 needs the approval of two thirds of the House. The decision hinges on the amount of one-time, or nonrecurring, money in the budget.

A two-thirds vote would require 70 favorable votes instead of 53.

House members spent Sunday poring over a six-page handout that aides prepared on the Senate’s changes to the budget.

“I’ve got to listen to everyone and then make a decision, not necessarily based on what I would do,” said state Rep. Jim Fannin, D-Jonesboro.

HB1 bears Fannin’s name since he is chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.

State Rep. Brett Geymann, R-Lake Charles, said the Senate needs to move the budget revamp bills to make many Republicans in the House happy.

“Can we get it to the point where enough people vote for it, and we don’t go to special session? I think we can,” he said.