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Louisiana Legislature passes skeleton budget that cuts TOPS, higher ed

Louisiana Legislature passes skeleton budget that cuts TOPS, higher ed

The Louisiana Legislature approved a budget late Monday night (June 4) that makes dramatic cuts to the TOPS scholarship program, public universities and other state agencies. It looks similar to the spending plan Gov. John Bel Edwards vetoed a little over two weeks ago and that lawmakers had called incomplete. 

"It is a sad day for the state of Louisiana. You saw a minority in the House prove that politics take priority over people," Edwards said at a press conference. "Our state deserves better than what we saw tonight." 

Lawmakers actually voted for a more robust budget -- but did not approve enough tax bills to fully fund it -- shortly before midnight Monday, the deadline for a two-week special session on fiscal issues. 

The spending plan that gained final approval will require several state agencies -- though not the Louisiana Department of Health -- to undergo dramatic funding cuts unless the Legislature agrees to raise taxes in another special session the governor plans to call later this month. It will be the fourth session held this year, and the third devoted specifically to fiscal issues.

At a press conference held after just lawmakers adjourned, Edwards said he hadn't decided yet whether he would veto the budget approved late Monday. He said he would have to take a closer look at where the cuts fall before making a decision.

The governor also hasn't decided when he will schedule the next special session, but it would have to end before the new budget cycle begins July 1. That's when the state sales tax will revert back to 4 percent, down from the temporary 5 percent rate lawmakers authorized two years ago to address revenue concerns. 

Efforts to solve the budget crisis have collapsed twice previously -- during the 2017 regular session and in a special session held earlier this year. As on previous occasions, tax proposals fell apart in the House on Monday night.

The Senate approved enough renewed taxes Monday to fund state government without any dramatic cuts. However, the House rejected two major tax bills in the final hour of the special session, forcing large cuts on the spending plan sent to the governor.

Rep. Lance Harris of Alexandria, head of the House Republican Caucus, authored a bill to increase the sales tax to 4.3 percent. Fearing there would be no compromise on that bill, the Senate and House Democrats overhauled a bill by Speaker Pro Tempore Walt Leger, D-New Orleans, to include a 4.5 percent rate. Both were voted down late Monday night, although Leger's bill fell just six votes of the 70 needed shy while the Harris bill gained just 36 "yes" votes.

In the final moments of session, House Speaker Taylor Barras, R-New Iberia, and Harris blocked an attempt from a bipartisan group of lawmakers to bring up Leger's bill for a second vote. Had it been successful, the Legislature could have gone home for the year, and TOPS and higher education reductions could have been avoided. 

It's not clear whether Leger's legislation would have passed if it had been given a second chance, but its supporters starting yelling and booing when Barras, Harris and Rep. Alan Seabaugh, R-Shreveport, filibustered to keep the 4.5 percent proposal from being reconsidered in the final minute of the session.  

"Yes, I'm trying to run out the clock," Seabaugh said at the House lecturn as he blocked the tax bill from coming up for a second vote. 

"It's on you! It's on you!" Rep. Julie Stokes, R-Kenner, yelled as she pointed at Seabaugh after the session expired without a major tax bill passing. 

"It was a total collapse of leadership," Edwards said of the House's actions Monday night. 

It's unlikely lawmakers will be willing to let the budget they approved actually go into effect on July 1, even if Edwards doesn't veto it, without finding or creating additional revenue. It makes large cuts to the TOPS program and to public universities and colleges. Edwards said district attorneys, sheriffs, the prison system and child welfare services could also see heavy reductions that might make it hard for them function. 

All told, the approved budget requires Louisiana to make more than $500 million in spending reductions -- or ultimately find the revenue to avoid them. 

House Republican leadership called for a budget to reduce government spending. Previous versions of the House budget plan had also cut TOPS and higher education to make the spending plan work with a 4.3 percent tax rate.