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Budget Warfare Is Coming

“We were fully aware of the implications of doing this.” – Senate Finance chairman Eric LaFleur

It felt a lot like the death of King Joffrey in season four of Game of Thrones, seeming like a victory, after the varieties and magnitude of his cruelty had been documented, episode by episode, not unlike the news cycle of late – demonstrating the maltreatment of Louisiana’s disabled, elderly and infirm that would result from the House-passed version of the budget.

You’ll understand then why the initial response was internal rejoicing, when Senate Finance chairman Eric LaFleur (D- Ville Platte) announced the changes they were proposing to HB 1.

“These are our budget priorities: fully fund health care and fully fund GO Grants. Our version protects medical schools, the public-private hospital partnerships, clinic services, disabilities waivers, the long-term care program, and pediatric daycare. For too many of our people, it’s a life and death situation without those services.”

But just as in Game of Thrones, knowing Margaery, Sansa, and others were finally safe from Joffrey did not mean that everybody was safe at all. You knew there would be a reckoning.

“We’re not saving anything,” LaFleur said bluntly. “How we do this is we take away the $346 million from the REC forecast, and we reduce TOPS by another 10%. We cut 5% off dedicated funds and self-generated funds. And we cut every other department by 24.2%, including the legislative and the judicial branches, DCFS, higher ed, Department of Corrections, state police.

“These are our priorities. How we do this, and the way we do this, demonstrates to the public the seriousness of the budget crisis,” LaFleur continued. “By putting what’s ridiculous below the line, we demonstrate the ridiculousness of the situation. Without the funding, nothing is safe.”

Other members of the committee weighed in, as well, to emphasize their solidarity with this approach.

“It’s imperative to indicate this is a step. We don’t want people to think we can legitimately cut 25% of state government,” Sen. Conrad Appel (R-Metairie) stated. “This is not the final budget. It has to go back to the House, and our intention is to continue the discussion. But we feel this should be included.”

“We all know this is not sustainable,” added Sen. Ronnie Johns (R-Lake Charles). “We know you can’t ask agencies to take 24-25% cuts.”

“It will shut everything down,” LaFleur acknowledged.

“But hopefully this will send a message to every member of the House that we have to have some revenue,” Johns added.

Without a single objection, the changes to HB 1 were adopted, and the budget bill advanced to the full Senate.

But the committee wasn’t done speaking out. They had resolutions, expressing in no uncertain terms that the Senate has had quite enough of the House’s attempts to prevent solutions to the fiscal cliff, and they intend to be involved in solving it.

“The Senate needs to be able to make its own statement about the revenues that are in the budget, but when we don’t get things forwarded by the House, we are silenced,” said Sen. Jack Donahue (R-Mandeville), determinedly. “These resolutions indicate what we believe should be considered in special session, and this expresses what we think is available.”

The resolutions enumerate amounts for renewing part of the fifth penny of sales tax, “cleaning” exemptions from the remaining pennies of sales tax, and reducing 17 tax credit and exemption programs by 27% apiece.

Without objection, those resolutions were also adopted: one, simply a Senate resolution; the other, a concurrent resolution – meaning it would go to the House for agreement, as well.

“I’m not sure they would agree,” Donahue said with a chuckle, “Because it says we have to work with the governor.”

The committee then invited the governor’s Commissioner of Administration to the witness table, for his comments on the actions they had just taken.

“The resolution is highly unusual,” Jay Dardenne told them, “But these are not normal times. I commend you for taking a proactive approach on revenue, which has never been laid before you. As we all are aware, nothing has come out of the House for you to vote on in that regard. This gives you a head start on the special session, and the administration appreciates your non-committal expression of possible revenues. Overall, this is a creative way to engage.

“Regarding HB1: When I came before you the last time, I told you most efficient would be to defer the bill. We need to move as expeditiously as possible into the special session, whereas moving this bill will elongate the session.”

Dardenne then proceeded to iterate the ramifications of the budget choices they had just made: “You need to know the impact of 24% cuts. State employees will get pink slips. You just cut higher ed by $96 million. The LSU Ag Center will declare financial exigency. You funded TOPS at 70%, signalling you favor a cut higher than the House. State parks will close. Meat inspectors will be terminated. Sheriffs will return 15,000 inmates to the state. We don’t know where they’ll sleep. LPB will go dark the end of this year.

“And Louisiana will become the first state to tell the feds we will not administer the SNAP program. No food stamps. No one will be eligible.”

As Dardenne paused to take a deep breath before continuing, LaFleur interrupted.

“You know, we know all of this. We contemplated this,” he said.

“I’m not chastising you,” Dardenne said. “I’m helping to demonstrate how serious the problem is. This is not saving the Department of Health. It’s not saving Medicaid. Nobody who receives state funding should be confident.”

“We knew what we were doing,” LaFleur insisted. “I wanted to park this, but the members wanted to make a statement, because basically the House didn’t give us any options. We were fully aware of the implications of doing this.”

“Commissioner, you were chastising us,” Sen. Bodi White (R-Baton Rouge) complained. “Your responsibility is to present the budget, and the House’s responsibility is to pass it to us. We don’t like it either. But if we had raised what you asked us to before – too much — what would the people think of us? And as of right now, the number we need has still yet to be determined!”

“I think you are throwing stones – more than that, you are pouring gas on the fire,” Sen. Sharon Hewitt (R-Slidell) told Dardenne, with some venom in her voice. “You called us in to special session before we even had a budget, just saying you wanted more revenue. That’s no good until we pass budget.”

“I agree we need a budget, but not this instant,” Dardenne replied. “We need to know what revenue is available first.”

“I, for one, am not willing to take a shot in the dark,” Sen. White said adamantly. “You insulted all of us. Now the governor can scare as many people as he wants – that’s his prerogative. I hate this budget, but our responsibility is to give it to you.”

Senate President John Alario then waded into the fray.

“We are all in this together. This committee took the position that if had to make a choice, we would choose life first. Some very conservative members chose to help with this. There is still a long way to go in the whole process. This is not the final budget, but we have a responsibility. This is the hand we were dealt. The House did what they thought was right. Now we are doing what we think is right.”

Yet as the meeting adjourned, Sen. LaFleur admitted, with a grin and a shake of his head, “This is the craziest, most cockamamie budget we could pass.”

As for House members’ reaction to what was – effectively – the Senate’s demand for “trial by combat” – the lower chamber had adjourned for the weekend just as the committee was announcing its decisions.

Me? I’m still waiting for the dragons…

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