House approves $27B state budget bill

BATON ROUGE — Southwest Louisiana Republicans in the state House voted for a $27 billion state budget bill here Thursday that contains $1.9 billion in health care cuts. Three area Democrats voted against the measure that was approved 55-47, two votes more than a majority. House Bill 1, the spending bill, moves to the Senate.

The House debated the bill for over six hours. It contains what state health care officials said are devastating reductions to the Louisiana Department of Health. 

Reps. Mark Abraham of Lake Charles, Stephen Dwight of Moss Bluff, Johnny Guinn of Jennings, Bob Hensgens of Abbeville and Frank Howard of Many voted for the bill. Hensgens also represents Cameron Parish, and Howard represents Vernon Parish.

Reps. James Armes of Leesville, Mike Danahay of Sulphur and A.B. Franklin of Lake Charles voted against the budget. Rep. Dorothy Sue Hill, D-Dry Creek, is on medical leave.

Abraham said, “No one likes this budget. The governor proposed a budget that he did not like because there were massive cuts to many departments of state. I believe it was incumbent on the House to also pass a budget we did not like because of the same cuts.

“I believe the Senate possibly will propose a similar budget that they do not like. The point is that now the House has identified exactly where the cuts to the budget are to be and when we go to a special session we can tell the citizens exactly what hole the increase in revenue will fill.

“This gives a clear picture of our current financial situation to the citizens of Louisiana. Do they want the current budget or do they want more revenue? The choice is theirs.”

Danahay said, “The budget passed by the House today fails to address the funding shortage that will heavily impact higher education institutions, the TOPS program, the public-private partnership hospitals that care for most medically vulnerable citizens, elderly in care facilities and those with physical and mental disabilities. As a state, we can and must do better.”

Rep. Robert Johnson, D-Marksville and leader of the House Democratic delegation, said it would be a shame to vote for a budget that shuts down hospitals, throws the elderly out of nursing homes and denies treatment of serious illnesses.

LDH got a tiny bit of relief when an amendment took $58 million from the TOPS scholarship program to give $33 million to the health department and $25 million to higher education to wipe out a reduction the House Appropriation Committee had in the legislation.

TOPS spending was reduced from $233 million to $175 million, funding the scholarship program at only 80 percent.

The extra funds for LDH are far short of the $583 million in general fund reductions that total $1.9 billion when the loss of federal health care funds is included. Severely affected are health care services for the poor, elderly and disabled.

The $33 million for LDH goes to the private-public hospitals that took over the state’s charity hospital system. It, too, doesn’t help those hospitals much because the proposed budget includes just over $200 million in cuts to those hospitals.

Jay Dardenne, state commissioner of administration, said those reductions would cause the hospitals to terminate their agreements with the state. The poor would then return to their former practice of getting treatment at private hospitals, he said.

Jeff Reynolds, undersecretary of LDH, said the reductions would close hospitals in Shreveport, Monroe, Lafayette and Bogalusa. He said reductions would also close the Moss Clinic in Lake Charles operated by Lake Charles Memorial Hospital. Thousands of workers would also be laid off at all the hospitals, he said. 

“There is no way to make this look good,” Dardenne said. 

Reynolds was asked what effect the $1.9 billion cut would have on other health care services. He said 80 percent of long-term care Medicaid patients (20,000 of them) in nursing homes would have to find other places to live. Medicaid is the federal-state health care program for poor and low-income Americans.

Calcasieu Parish has 1,265 Medicaid patients in nursing homes; Allen Parish has 255, Beauregard Parish 208, Cameron Parish 5, Jeff Davis Parish 349 and Vernon Parish 239.

Home care and community care services would face similar reductions, he said, and surgical centers for Medicaid patients would close. Drug abuse and mental health services would cease, Reynolds said.

Rep. Robert Billiot, D-Westwego, said the cuts would affect every street and block in the state.

The state’s two medical schools at New Orleans and Shreveport would face a 40 percent reduction in their budgets that would lose places to train new doctors, Reynolds said. 

Rep. Cameron Henry, R-Metairie and chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said this is just the first major step in the budget process. However, those opposed to the budget proposal said it is always possible those reductions would survive during the rest of the legislative process.

Henry and Rep. Lance Harris, R-Alexandria and chairman of the Republican House Delegation, repeatedly said the budget cuts aren’t as severe as those in the budget proposed by Gov. John Bel Edwards. Dardenne reminded them the governor is required to submit a balanced budget and the one he gave them wasn’t a budget he liked. Edwards said before and after the vote he would veto the budget if it got to him in its current form.

Henry said agencies always want more money and the state has to live within its means. Harris said the budget is responsible and spends only revenues that are available.

Republican lawmakers said getting a budget approved would give the Legislature an idea of what taxes would be needed in a special session expected after the current session. Dardenne said they have had many opportunities to raise revenues and had declined on every occasion.

“How many bites do you get at the apple?” he said.

Sen. Eric LaFleur, D-Ville Platte and chairman of the Senate Finance Committee that will debate the budget, told The Associated Press he favors a special session that Edwards wants to hold when the regular session ends.

“It doesn’t seem to make sense for us to proceed knowing that the document isn’t acceptable to anyone,” LaFleur said.

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