Lipstick on the Pig

The old adage says, “You can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig.” And in Louisiana, no matter how we decorate the piggy bank, it’s still broke. That didn’t stop House Appropriations committee members from trying to bedazzle the shards and sell it as designer art. The presentation of the committee’s Republican majority-recommended changes was carefully crafted. “We’ve spent more than 40 hours over five weeks, heard from 28 agency heads and staff; and while creating the amendments, I reviewed the administration proposals and spoke to members to develop the changes you have before you now,” Appropriations chairman Cameron Henry stated, trying to make it sound as though this was fully vetted and agreed-upon. “You said you talked to members, Mr. Chairman? You didn’t talk to me,” Rep. Pat Smith (D-Baton Rouge), the longest-serving member of the committee, interjected. “Ms. Smith, I believe I said I talked to a majority of members,” Henry replied. He then stated they would be “adding money back into the budget,” due to a $346-million improved outlook recognized by the Revenue Estimating Conference last Thursday. And Henry called on the committee vice-chair, Rep. Franklin Foil (R-Baton Rouge) to present the first proposed change. “This amendment adds $233-million to the TOPS program, and $13-million to GO Grants,” Foil explained. “We want to send a message to our kids and parents that this is our main priority.” “So of $346-million available, you want to spend $246-million of it for this, leaving $100-million for everything else?” Leger asked. “You believe $246-million is best spent in these ways?” “I do,” Foil replied. “We had a lot of ground to make up, since the executive budget had zero dollars spent on TOPS.” “Isn’t this message giving students false hope, because the full body isn’t likely to maintain this in lieu of funding other programs?” Leger pressed. “You’re okay getting a positive news story today, even if it ultimately will prove to be fake news?” “My commitment is to students,” Foil answered. “What about the Department of Health?” Leger asked. “What about it?” Foil fired back. “You’re aware that department is taking biggest cuts? And you still believe it is more valuable to fund TOPS?” Leger asked, incredulously. “Your district includes a substantial constituency that is on Medicaid, doesn’t it, Rep. Foil?” Rep. Pat Smith asked. “But you’re willing to fully fund TOPS to benefit a different socio-economic group in your district, instead?” “I think this helps everyone, in every district,” Foil replied. “We are clearly short on revenue, and even if we were to take all of the money available and give it to the Department of Health, they would still have a shortfall.” “Yet your amendment fully funds TOPS to the detriment of all the other programs in the state: disabilities waivers, nursing homes, public-private partner hospitals, graduate medical education,” Leger said. “It’s a trap, forcing us Democrats to say we either support TOPS or we don’t. That’s a false choice, and it will really end up being nothing more than a comment about what we would like to do.” “We are already on notice that the public-private partner hospitals will be closing,” Rep. Gary Carter (D-New Orleans) chimed in. “We say ‘we fund our priorities.’ Your amendment makes TOPS a greater priority than health care.” “I believe we will find funding as we go through this process,” Foil insisted. “That’s pie in the sky,” Pat Smith told him, bluntly. “You’re perfectly aware there is no guarantee to raise additional revenue. Some 20 members of this body won’t vote for any new revenue under any circumstances. What this ends up saying is that we only want to fund a program for kids doing well in school, but not the schools they go to, and not the hospitals.” Yet on an 18-5 nearly party-line vote, the committee adopted that amendment. Rep. Bubba Chaney (R-Rayville) broke ranks to oppose it. Next up was the chairman’s amendment, allocating the rest of the additional revenue recognized by REC last week. Included in that $100-million is $58-million for LDH, and $2-million for one – and only one – of the public-private partner hospitals: the one in Alexandria. Not so coincidentally, Appropriations committee member and House Republican Caucus chairman, Lance Harris, is from Alexandria. “All together, our partner hospitals have a $200-million unfunded need. What of the $58-million directed to LDH is going to fund them?” Leger asked. “LDH will determine that,” Henry replied. “So we’re basically giving them $58-million to use as they see fit?” Leger asked. “Well…” was all Henry could answer. As for the $2-million allocated to the Alexandria hospital, Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne warned, “That’s not going to keep any of these other hospitals open. And it will effectively end graduate medical education in the state.” The committee approved that amendment, 18-6, with Chaney again siding with Democrats. Leger then proposed an amendment to HB 1 that would divvy up the $346-million in additional revenue more equitably. “I assure you this is great, one of the finest amendments ever offered,” Leger said, entirely tongue-in-cheek. “It is, however, fundamentally fairer and more responsible than what we’ve approved thus far. It puts $25-million back into higher ed, and $74-million toward the public private partner hospitals – specifically Shreveport and New Orleans, in order to support our medical schools. It adds $50-million for TOPS and restores funding to the sheriffs’ prisons so they can continue to implement the criminal justice reinvestment programs.” “Does it fully fund the public-private partner hospitals?” Rep. Jack McFarland (R- Jonesboro) asked pointedly. “No, but $74-million of the $200-million needed is better than none,” Leger replied. “Didn’t we hear the public-private partners were going to walk away if they’re not fully funded?” Lance Harris asked. “If they’re going to walk away anyway, why not fully fund TOPS?” “When we appropriate $58 million out of $656-million in cuts to LDH, here’s what’s going to happen: notices will go out in two weeks, to hospital staff, to providers, to patients who receive services,” Leger responded. “Those notices of layoffs and services canceled will have intense ramifications for those who receive them. “For example, some 15,000 nursing home residents will be notified they’ve got to find another place to live, because Louisiana is kicking them out onto the streets.” Henry pooh-poohed that, saying, “If I remember, the feds at CMS have to approve any cuts to LDH programs. That takes 60 days for an answer, and then they want more info. We have 60 days to answer, and they have another 60 days to answer. To say they’re going to end up on the streets is not accurate.” “In the meantime, we have to keep paying for their services, and there’s no money in the budget to do that,” Leger replied. “You talk like this is all devastation and scorched earth,” Rep. Tony Bacala (R-Prairieville) told Leger. “Let me remind you, LDH’s budget – total means of finance – was $13.6 billion last year. This year we’re giving them $12-billion, so it’s only an eight percent reduction.” “You’re using total means of finance, but HB 1 is really about appropriating state general fund dollars. That gives a skewed sense of what’s happening,” Leger replied. “We have to look at it all,” Bacala insisted. “It’s an 8% reduction, and nobody up here is talking about kicking people out of nursing homes. That’s up to LDH.” Not unexpectedly, Leger’s amendment failed, 6-18. HB 1 was moved forward to the full House, 17-6, where it’s scheduled for action on Thursday. Gov. John Bel Edwards issued a statement after the bill advanced. “What we saw today from the House Appropriations Committee was not a serious attempt to tackle the problems we face. In rushing to pass amendments out, the House Appropriations Committee proved what we’ve been saying all along – there simply isn’t a way to fashion a budget that adequately funds our state’s pressing needs. This budget document is not worth the paper it’s printed on, and gives nothing but false hope to students and parents who want to attend a Louisiana university or community and technical college. “This budget approved by the House Appropriations Committee has no chance of becoming law,” the governor’s statement concluded. In other words, it might glitter with gems, but the pottery piggy bank is still busted. And the glue is being used for decorating purposes, rather than repairs.