The Louisiana Senate passed a $25 billion budget Saturday evening that could set the stage for a showdown with the House in the final week of the 2013 legislative session. The budget approved by the Senate, which is significantly different from a bipartisan compromise struck in the House, could lead to battles on a number of issues, chief among them the use of one-time money in the budget.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Jack Donahue, R-Covington, defended the Senate’s budget, calling it the “best I’ve seen since I’ve been here.”
“I like this budget and I’m proud of this budget and I’m tired of people telling me it’s not a good budget,” Donahue said.
The two houses must agree on a spending plan, contained in House Bill 1, before the legislative session wraps up Thursday.
The Senate passed the budget 37-1, with only Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, D-New Orleans, dissenting.
Peterson took to the microphone to explain her vote, arguing that the budget was patched together and blasting Gov. Bobby Jindal for threatening to veto any bills that raised revenue. Peterson, who said this is the first time she’s voted against a budget in her 14 years in the Legislature, also criticized the governor for turning down a Medicaid expansion during the debate.
“We can do better, we should do better,” Peterson said. “It doesn’t present a vision for a better Louisiana.”
Many of the significant changes made by the Senate to the budget, which covers the fiscal year starting July 1, deal with issues that cropped up after the spending plan had already passed the House, Donahue said. Those included the need to come up with an alternative method to fund the state’s education voucher program and to find more money to pay for transition costs associated with privatizing the state’s public hospitals, he said.
The Senate budget, which now heads back to the House, retains many of the revenue-raising measures approved earlier by representatives, including a temporary tax amnesty program and cuts to tax credits. It trims cuts to state travel budgets, vacant positions and new spending that were included in the House plan from about $105 million to $30 million.
The Senate budget provides more money for higher education and additional money for a program for the developmentally disabled. It also includes a one-time bonus for school employees including teachers and school nurses but exempting superintendents. That proposal is expected to cost the state $50 million.
The teacher bonus, which was first proposed Saturday, may entice some House members who have complained about low teacher pay to support the proposal. However, the plan faces significant hurdles in the House.
Ensuring that about $525 million in one-time money from lawsuit settlements, fund sweeps and sales of state property was eliminated from the budget was a key focus of the compromise that brought the entire House on board with the plan. But senators reversed many of those provisions, adding back about $272 million in non-recurring money to the budget, according to the Legislative Fiscal Office.
In addition to philosophical objections many House members have to budgeting one-time money, the amount of such money included in the Senate budget creates a procedural obstacle for getting the budget through the lower chamber. A House rule requires a two-thirds vote to pass a budget when the amount of one-time money it contains passes a certain threshold. The amount in the Senate budget exceeds that limit by about $83 million.
The issue of one-time money is not the only budget issue on which the Senate has bucked the House this year. Earlier in the week, senators significantly altered or killed a series of bills aimed at overhauling the state’s budgetary process, changing the two measures that made it out of committee from constitutional amendments to two-year pilot programs.
Those bills were a priority of the fiscal hawks, a largely Republican group of House budget critics, and the budget compromise reached in the House earlier this session hinged on those bills getting passed.
Jindal issued a statement after the budget passed praising it for funding the voucher program and providing the bonus for teachers.
While the majority of Saturday’s discussion was calm, several flashpoints arose over amendments proposed to the budget.
Sen. A.G. Crowe, R-Pearl River, twice tried to add amendments to the budget to “suspend” state funding for Planned Parenthood, though the state does not currently provide any money to the organization. Crowe said the measure was sparked by a Texas lawsuit against the organization, and the issue of abortions, which Planned Parenthood does not currently perform in Louisiana, hung at the edges of the debate.
Both attempts were shot down by wide margins.
Another proposed amendment took aim at the school voucher program Jindal pushed through the Legislature last year. That program was supposed to be funded through the Minimum Foundation Program, which provides state money to school districts on a per-pupil basis, but that financing mechanism was ruled unconstitutional earlier this year.
Sen. Dan “Blade” Morrish, R-Jennings, proposed “putting the brakes” on the program by continuing to provide vouchers to students who signed up last year but declining to add new participants. About 4,000 students used vouchers this year, and an additional 4,500 applied for next year.
Morrish’s amendment, which was voted down 19-15, would have cut the amount of general fund money the state expects to spend on the program next year from $45 million to $20 million, with the balance going back to the state’s public school districts.
Without a specified funding source, the voucher program risks growing out of control and causing future budget problems, much like the state’s scholarship program has done in recent years, Morrish said.
“To be fiscally responsible, the best thing for us to do is put on the brakes, let the people who are now enrolled continue to be enrolled, to look at this program and find a dedicated source of funds for this program,” he said.