Last Modified: Wednesday, May 09, 2012 6:17 PM
BATON ROUGE — The state's proposed $25.5 billion budget for the new year, the most important issue legislators deal with every year, takes center stage today in the House of Representatives.
Gov. Bobby Jindal came up with the spending plan in February. Since that time a select group has analyzed, scrutinized, examined, inspected, studied, explored, investigated, researched, reviewed, evaluated, dissected and gone over the budget with a fine tooth comb.
Most of the work thus far has been done by the budget writers for the Jindal administration and members of the House Appropriations Committee. Today, the other members of the House get their turn.
A group of fiscal conservatives, mostly Republicans, would like to begin the day by taking an estimated $250 million in one-time money out of the plan that left the appropriations committee on a 22-2 vote. Those are funds that aren't expected to be around next year.
Rep. Brett Geymann, R-Moss Bluff, is one of those conservatives. He and Rep. Jim Morris, R-Oil City, were the two "no" votes on the budget when it left the committee.
Others on the committee also voiced reservations, but voted to send the bill to the floor. However, they said that didn't necessarily mean they would support it after today's debate.
Paul Rainwater, Jindal's commissioner of administration and budget architect, said one-time money is needed to prevent drastic cuts to health care and education. Both are major areas of the budget that aren't protected from budget reductions.
Can the budget survive without that one-time money? The fiscal conservatives think so. Others believe it's essential. So who's right?
Getting a straight story won't be easy. Budget manipulations are extremely complex. Sometimes when people talk about budget cuts they are really talking about cutting the size of a spending increase. We had an example of that after the budget left the appropriations committee.
"Health and hospitals, higher education face more budget cuts," said one headline.
Bruce Greenstein, secretary of the state Department of Health and Hospitals, talked about having to cut rates to Medicaid providers and reduce services to the disabled. Why is that necessary when DHH would actually get an increase over last year's budget?
Jindal's budget proposed nearly $9 billion for the state Department of Health and Hospitals in fiscal 2012-13, an increase of $382.7 million over the current fiscal year. The committee cut that down to $138 million. However, that is still a budget increase of 1.61 percent.
Higher education didn't fare so well. The governor's budget cut it by $80.8 million, and the committee added more cuts that added up to a $244 million decrease over the current year. That is an 8.1 percent budget reduction.
The administration argues that colleges and universities are able to make up those budget cuts with increased tuition. Higher education officials tell a different story.
"Many of our institutions are struggling," Jim Purcell, state commissioner of higher education, told the Senate Finance Committee. "We don't know what the cuts will mean, but we know for some, the cuts will be quite painful."
Purcell proposed passage of a stabilization fee of up to $25 per credit hour, which could cost college students $300 or more per semester for three years. The fee would be better than a tuition increase, he said.
Parents and students are taking on more of the burden to finance higher education, but the cuts keep coming. Is there no relief in sight?
Higher education gained considerable ground during the administrations of Govs. Mike Foster and Kathleen Blanco, but recent cuts are beginning to take a heavy toll.
Foster opened the 2003 regular session, his last year in office, talking about investing $1.5 billion new dollars in health care and a similar amount in higher education. He said the new money was necessary because public schools, community colleges and universities suffered budget cut after budget cut.
The Associated Press talked about the status of higher education during Blanco's last year in office in a 2007 story. Here is what an AP news report said:
"Under Blanco’s proposal, colleges would be funded at the level of their peer institutions in the South for the first time since 1981. Lawmakers on the House Appropriations Committee said that was a long-sought goal they hoped to maintain as the budget proposal for the upcoming fiscal year that begins July 1 moves through the Legislature.
"It has been a struggle to get to this point, and based on what this state has been through in the last couple of years, it’s amazing that we’re even talking about being where we are,” said Rep. John Alario, D-Westwego, chairman of the committee."
Is higher education losing ground again like it did in the 1980s? Are higher tuition and increased fees denying some Louisiana youngsters an opportunity to attend college?
Those are questions legislators should keep in mind as they get their shot at the budget today.