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Day 2, and It’s Already a Zoo

“It’s like buzzards flying around Louisiana, ready to swoop in on the carcasses we leave behind.” — Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne

A fox has been repeatedly spotted on the Capitol grounds, and First Lady Donna Edwards is soliciting names for the seven baby bunnies born at the the Governor’s Mansion mini-farm. And in House Appropriations, the regular session’s second day offered more than a few additional references to the animal kingdom.

“It’s like buzzards flying around Louisiana, ready to swoop in on the carcasses we leave behind,” Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne told the money committee, as he presented the executive budget proposal.

He recited a litany of consequences expected due to more than a billion dollars in ”temporary taxes” dropping out of the state revenue stream after June 30th: inability to issue bonds because the state can’t afford the debt service, state credit downgrades, contract termination notices from public-private hospital partners, civil service layoffs, students being recruited to attend universities in Alabama and Georgia.

“These are facts. You may not like them, but you can’t change the facts,” Dardenne said of the effects of implementing the “doomsday budget.”

“Those of you who have said we just need to cut the budget, okay. It’s your turn. You do it,” Dardenne challenged. “You tell us specifically what you don’t want to fund. Show the people of Louisiana your cuts – that you’re willing to put your name on.”

“The sky has been falling since I walked in here,” Rep. Larry Bagley (R-Stonewall) remarked – in essence, verbally flipping the bird at the state budget chief.

Bagley wasn’t alone in his willingness to disregard Dardenne’s information, as several members of the Appropriations committee began picking at the numbers.

“How comfortable are you with the $302-million we’re expected to gain as a result of the federal tax cuts?” asked Rep. Blake Miguez (R-Erath). “When are you going to start using the lower number instead of insisting it’s a $994-million shortfall?”

“The official number from the Revenue Estimating Conference is $994-million,” Dardenne replied. “The amount from the federal tax changes are speculation, until the REC says differently.”

“But that’s going to help this budget tremendously,” Miguez insisted. “Where would you allocate those moneys?”

“That’s your decision,” Dardenne fired back. “I’m not here today to talk about ‘hypothetically.’ That will be your decision.”

Miguez pressed on: “Well, what about statutory dedications? Isn’t there a constitutional trigger allowing the Governor to cut 3 to 5-percent from those, across the board? According to the REC numbers, hasn’t that trigger been met? I mean, we have some spread sheets on our side that show $137-million available that way.”

“While I agree the trigger has been pulled, you have to remember, those funds will be one-time money, and so can’t be used for continuing programs. Using one-time money for continuing expenses is a big part of why we’re facing this cliff right now,” Dardenne cautioned.

“But it’s the Constitution!” Miguez insisted, as if that made it okay. “We should take advantage of every tool in the toolbox!”

“The fact is, you have presented your recommendations based on the official forecast, and based on the numbers we have today, correct?” Speaker Pro Tem Walt Leger (D-New Orleans) addressed Dardenne. “And the fact is, at this very moment, there are 994-million less dollars available to be appropriated than last year, correct?”

But before Dardenne could complete his answer in the affirmative, Appropriations chairman Cameron Henry (R-Metairie) interrupted.

“Look, we all know that the $994-million is what you want to spend, not the actual amount the state will be short. Our numbers are closer to $545-million and that is the number we will be working on.”

Committee members weren’t done pecking at the Commissioner’s numbers however, especially once he brought up the cuts projected for the Department of Health.

“You will hear the consequences of all these cuts,” Dardenne advised. “You’re not going to be able to get around LDH. It’s the gorilla in the room.”

Dardenne explained that while the Department of Health utilizes 26% of State General Fund available for the current fiscal year, the executive budget proposal takes 54% of the total cuts from LDH. That includes reducing funding for NOW waivers, eliminating mental health rehab services, and eliminating payments to the partner hospitals. Dardenne said that will effectively terminate the public-private hospital partnership contracts – something that’s been confirmed by his receipt of notifications to that effect by those hospital operators in Baton Rouge, Lafayette, Lake Charles, and now New Orleans.

That started a charge of bullish a questions from Rep. Tony Bacala (R – Prairieville).

“What happened to the $1.1-billion savings we were supposed to achieve in UCC due to expansion? We’ve doubled the number of people that are now insured, but we haven’t seen the UCC payments cut in half. It hasn’t been at all proportional!” Bacala contended.

Without letting Dardenne reply, Bacala went on, “Never mind! I don’t think you can explain it to my satisfaction!”

Then he went off on a rant about the partner hospitals and the contracts.

“You’re letting the big hospitals run roughshod over y’all – letting the tail wag the dog! Stop them! I don’t think terminating the contracts is a bad thing. It’s time to right the ship!”

Dardenne, who by this time was carefully unclenching his hands and stretching out his fingers, said pointedly, “That will cost more, as the state will have to take on the costs of running the hospitals and paying their employees.”

“Hmmph!” Bacala responded, folding his arms and looking down his nose – over the top of his glasses – at Dardenne, “You have the ability to change those contracts – if you chose to!”

Meanwhile, Gov. John Bel Edwards sent a formal request to Senate President John Alario and Speaker Taylor Barras, urging them each to work toward ending the regular session by mid-May, in order to hold and complete another special session by the currently scheduled end of the regular session on June 4th.

With the Appropriations Committee meeting lasting past 6 p.m. Tuesday, it might seem they’re in accord with that idea. However, Appropriations chairman Cameron Henry posted a video on Facebook indicating just the opposite.

“The governor’s idea for the budget process is for us not to have one,” Henry declares. “He thinks it’s better for us to come back here and waste more taxpayer dollars — not pass a budget so we can come into another special session to raise your taxes. I think that would be a colossal mistake on everyone’s part.”

It is, after all, springtime – when snakes have frequently been known to infest the Capitol.

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