Last Modified: Friday, June 01, 2012 11:32 AM
BATON ROUGE (AP) — Louisiana senators voted unanimously Thursday in favor of a $25.6 billion state operating budget for next year, setting up a showdown with conservative House lawmakers who want smaller spending plans and deeper cuts.
Few changes were made to the bill that will finance state agencies and services in the fiscal year that begins July 1, with the Senate supporting plans drawn up by the Senate Finance Committee earlier this week.
"I feel comfortable with the budget that we are proposing," said Sen. Jack Donahue, R-Mandeville, who handles the bill as chairman of the Finance Committee.
Gov. Bobby Jindal's administration and House Speaker Chuck Kleckley, R-Lake Charles, are hoping to drum up enough votes in the House to back the Senate version of the 2012-13 budget, which now returns to the House for approval of the Senate changes.
Lawmakers have until Monday, when the regular session must end, to decide on a final version of next year's spending plans.
Under the Senate proposal, the budget would remain largely flat, compared to this year. The state's Medicaid program would see an increase in funding, while public colleges would face another round of cuts. A state prison in northwest Louisiana would be closed. Private companies would be hired to run facilities for the developmentally disabled and several Mississippi River ferries.
But a bloc of conservative House Republicans want about $270 million in one-time financing pushed by the Jindal administration and supported by the Senate to be stripped from the budget plans. The lawmakers argue use of the piecemeal financing for continuing programs was fiscally irresponsible since it wasn't certain to appear each year.
Jindal's budget advisers and senators said removal of the dollars would devastate public colleges and health care services. They described thousands of layoffs, elimination of a breast cancer and cervical cancer treatment program and closure of a university medical school under the plans pushed in the House.
The House coalition accused the administration of using scare tactics, and said the money could be cut from overtime pay, vacant jobs and unnecessary contracts. When the Senate's version of the budget was unveiled earlier this week, two dozen House members issued a statement criticizing the proposal.
"At a time when most Louisiana citizens and businesses have reduced their own budgets to meet their income, if we cannot do the same as a state, we fear we never will," the coalition, calling itself the "House Fiscal Hawks" said in the statement.
The Senate debate contained none of the rancor that marked the ongoing House dispute over the budget. While the House spent two days of floor debate arguing over the spending plans, the Senate wrapped up its debate in two hours.
As it heads back to the House, higher education would be hit with a $70 million cut, with only a portion offset by tuition increases.
The state's free college tuition program called TOPS would see an increase in funding, to cover boosts in tuition costs for students. The K-12 public school funding formula would grow slightly to cover new students.
Contentious plans pushed by Jindal to sell an Avoyelles Parish prison were removed from the budget, along with a proposal to merge the governor's Office of Elderly Affairs into the state health department.
The Office of the Inspector General, which would have been shuttered under the House budget proposal, would remain open in the Senate version.
Across government, state agencies could be forced to make up to 2,700 layoffs.
Private companies would be hired to run a state employee health care plan in the Office of Group Benefits, facilities that care for developmentally disabled people in Hammond and Bossier City and the operations of ferries in Gretna, Algiers and Chalmette.
Ferries at Edgard and White Castle would stop running, and the Forcht-Wade Correctional Center in Keithville would be closed.
Health care providers who take care of Medicaid patients would get paid nearly 4 percent less, on average, for those services. Private hospitals would be exempt from the rate reduction.
The Senate also Thursday backed a more than $4.3 billion multiyear, capital construction plan that includes $110 million more in projects vying for lines of credit next year than there is money to spend. That would leave the governor's office to decide which projects get funding.
Online: House Bills 1 and 822 can be found at www.legis.la.gov