Tensions high as House passes state budget that cuts TOPS, support for hospital partnerships

By Devon Sanders, Ryan Noonan and Paul Braun, LSU Manship School News Service

BATON ROUGE — Tensions were high Thursday as the Louisiana House voted 55-47 to pass a state budget that called for cutting TOPS funding by 20 percent and stripping most of the funding for partner hospitals and other health services for the poor.

This proposal came after state officials estimated that federal tax changes would bring in an extra $346 million in state revenue next year, lowering the projected budget deficit to $648 million.

Some legislators, like Democratic Caucus Chairman Robert Johnson of Marksville, expressed serious concerns about the bill and its impact on Louisianans, especially the 31,000 nursing home residents who would lose Medicaid funding and be forced out of facilities with no places to go.

“We are constitutionally obligated to pass a budget, but we are not constitutionally obligated to pass this one,” Johnson said. “Shame on us if we do.”

In a press conference after the vote, Gov. John Bel Edwards returned to his now-familiar calls for a special session to raise revenue.

“I think the far better approach, the sounder approach, the more honest approach, is to go into a special session where we fix the revenue and fashion the budget at the same time,” Edwards said. “At the end of the day, we are going to find a way to make sure we fashion a responsible budget, and today didn’t do it.”

Edwards criticized House Speaker Taylor Barras, R-New Iberia, and other House Republicans for what he described as a tendency to say they support compromise before voting against it.

The Republican-led House Appropriations Committee on Monday passed a version of the budget allocating $230 million to TOPS, fully funding the program.

However, Thursday, when the bill reached the House floor, Rep. Lance Harris, R-Alexandria, and chairman of the Republican delegation, presented an amendment that would fund TOPS at 80 percent instead of 100 percent of the projected cost and split the remaining money between higher education and state hospitals run by private partners.

Roughly $32.5 million saved on TOPS would be dispersed through the partner hospitals across the state. The hospitals have said, however, that they need a combined $200 million to continue operating.

Harris contended that the House had to pass a budget despite the heavy cuts.

“It’s not just our job to pass a budget, but it is our job to pass a stable tax structure for this state,” Rep. Walt Leger, D-New Orleans responded.

Leger also asked Harris if he felt the budget, as it stood, met the needs of the state. Harris said he did not.

Harris also said Thursday that he was in favor of a special session. This comes after weeks of House Republicans claiming that they could solve the state’s budget deficit through cuts alone.

Rep. Barry Ivey, R-Central, argued that Harris and others did not feel that it was imperative to pass a budget in the previous special session.

Ivey, who voted against the budget Thursday, previously accused his fellow Republican legislators of not wanting to give Gov. Edwards, a Democrat, a political victory by passing tax reform during the last special session.

“I got excoriated for trying to do my job and pass a budget,” said Ivey.

The only Democrat to vote in favor of the bill was Rep. Neil Abramson, D-New Orleans. He said that his vote did not mean he endorsed the bill as final but did think it was a place to start.

The Legislature was unable to pass a budget reform last year and failed again in February’s special session.

As the proposed budget now moves from the House, the Senate has not said if it will address it during the regular session.  Senate President John Alario, R-Westwego, has said he was not sure if legislators would be able to come to agreement and that he would rather debate the budget during a special session when raising more revenue is part of the mix.

Jay Dardenne, the commissioner of the Division of Administration, broke down the funding for health care and showed that each partner-hospital would only receive around 12 percent of funds needed.

Rep. Barbara Norton, D-Shreveport asked why the only funding for hospitals in the budget passed by the Appropriations Committee for went to one in Alexandria, where Harris is from.

Harris said that she would have to ask the chairman of the Appropriations Committee, Cameron Henry, R-Metairie. She then asked if Harris had asked Henry why his district would have been the only one receiving funding, and he said he had not done so.

“I basically didn’t know about it,” said Harris.

Rep. Malinda White, D-Bogalusa, told Harris he could keep the portion of money that would go to the hospitals in her area because it “wouldn’t even keep the Band-Aid station open.”

“You can give the money to someone else,” she said.

Other representatives worried about the loss to TOPS funding.

Rep. Kenneth E. Havard, R-Jackson, argued that by reducing TOPS, the state was breaking their promise with families.

“So now we are going to cut the one thing they get,” Havard said. “The only thing that we have promised them since they entered the ninth grade.”

State figures show said that 20 percent of the TOPS money typically goes to students from families earning $150,000 or more.

Gov. Edwards closed the day with a promise to keep the state’s priorities fully funded.

“I’m going to work hard every single day to make sure that we are successful and the types of cuts that I just described to you don’t happen in the state of Louisiana,” said Edwards. “The sooner the better. The state is better than this. They deserve better than this.”