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Senate to House: Enough “Petty Political Nonsense”

“We wanted to tell the public that we understand the problem, that there are solutions, and we want to solve the problem.” – Sen. Jack Donahue

The Senate returned the budget and related bills to the House Tuesday, sending a single-fingered message in doing so.

First up was HB 1, an appropriations bill that typically “provides for the ordinary operating expenses of state government (during the next fiscal year).”

As sent over from the House, it primarily cut funding for health care-related programs, including long term care, disabilities waivers, public-private partner hospitals, and graduate medical school education. It also only funded TOPS at 80%.

Last week, after hearing extensive testimony regarding the impacts of the House endorsed cuts, the Senate Finance committee made some strategic changes. They restored full funding to healthcare and hospitals, cut TOPS another 10%, and slashed budgets for all other state departments.

“This is a budget I don’t know if anyone here can vote for,” said Finance Committee chairman Eric LaFleur (D- Ville Platte), as he presented the modified budget to the upper chamber. “It demonstrates our priorities, that we don’t believe we should take a fragile person and put them in the position where they could die. We just believe that life and the quality of life is important enough to fund at the cost of everything else. It demonstrates the magnitude of the problem we face.

“Some people here and on the other side believe we need to cut government. Fine. We can cut. We do it here. To keep funding for our disabled, elderly and medically needy population, this cuts across every other department in state government by 24.2%. Most of those departments are labor-intensive, so that means they will lose manpower they need to accomplish their mission.”

Those senators who hadn’t been privy to the Finance Committee’s deliberations had questions.

“We were all shocked by the notices that went out to our elderly in nursing homes,” Sen Mike Walsworth (R-West Monroe) said. “This budget answers that?

“It would clearly be a lie to tell the public this ‘fixes’ the budget. It merely sets the stage to fix it,” LaFleur cautioned. “As for the notices that went out, I don’t know why you were shocked. We were all told during the last special session this would happen. We are losing more than a billion dollars in revenue, and it’s a problem we all knew we would have when we passed temporary tax measures. We all knew. We don’t have reliable revenue. That is poor public policy. You certainly don’t run your home or business this way.”

LaFleur reminded senators they are dealing with an overall pot of money that is approximately $650 million dollars less than what’s needed to fund state government functions in the next fiscal year.

“We only have limited choices for immediate money, is that correct?” Sen. Dan Claitor (R-Baton Rouge) asked.

“There’s not another dime we can create for this budget today,” LaFleur stated bluntly. “We cannot protect people. We cannot assure their safety without additional revenue.”

“Why would anyone think we could fund this state without additional revenue?” Sen Francis Thompson (D-Delhi) asked, not entirely rhetorically. “Using the analogy between this budget and a skinny pig, both of them are ugly, correct?

Lafleur chuckled.

“Skinny and ugly, yes, but tasty,” he said, licking his lips exaggeratedly.

“But it would take more lipstick than you could put on a pig to make it anything but ugly, right?” Thompson asked, grinning mischievously.

“It would take more than cosmetic surgery to make this pretty in any way,” LaFleur agreed.

There were numerous and repeated attempts by Sen. John Milkovich (D-Shreveport) to amend the budget bill – everything from mandating a statewide hiring freeze to cutting the state Department of Education by $600 million (which was really about advancing Milkovich’s personal vendetta against state Superintendent John White). None of those proposals gained any traction, most likely due to the members’ general distaste for Milkovich himself.

Then it was time to argue for – or against – the bill as a whole. One of the first to speak was Jim Fannin. The Republican from Jonesboro formerly served as the House Appropriations chairman.

“My name is on a lot of the budgets that have been put through this legislature, and I can honestly say that this is not a good one,” Fannin said. “This is, however, a $28 billion document, with only $600 million in needs not funded. We can’t deal with that until we get to the special session next week, so the right step is to take care of the $28 billion now.”

“We’re told this budget is the opportunity to share with the House our priorities – that it’s a ‘moral’ document, stating we in the Senate choose to support life,” Sen. Karen Carter Peterson (D-New Orleans) declared. “The reality is, this does not reflect our values. We know it’s inadequate. This is just an exercise in futility.

“It’s all part of gamesmanship – foolishness – that we can’t get the House to move Senate bills unless HB 1 comes back to them. We have to pass this to appease them, because we don’t know how else to deal with them,” she continued, then urged, “Don’t pass this. We’re coming back next week anyway, with the ability to craft an adequate budget. Don’t perpetuate this farce.”

In his closing, though, LaFleur masterfully gathered all the disparate arguments together, braiding them back into a narrative that the majority of Senate members could unite behind.

“We’ve been caught up in a lot of petty political nonsense, and we can argue all day about the size of government, whether Medicaid expansion hurt or helped, whether it’s irresponsible to pass this. Many members feel that passing a budget is their fiduciary duty, their obligation, their responsibility. So let’s make our statement, and send an important message that could help change the discussions over the next two weeks.”

The vote was 27-10, sending the revised budget back to the House.

The Senate then continued to vote on – and approve – the remainder of the budget bills, putting each of them in a posture consistent with their budget. They cut the judicial branch budget by 24%, and cut the legislative budget equivalently, too.

They also sent another major message to the House, in the form a resolution, listing revenue-raising options the upper chamber would consider in the upcoming special session, and estimated amounts available through each.

Senator Norby Chabert (R-Houma) got up to speak in favor of SCR 101, by Sen. Jack Donahue (R-Mandeville).

“As much as it pains me to say it, we have to work with the other side,” Chabert remarked, through clenched teeth. “But we can’t just be a body of reaction. Proactivity is a good thing.”

“The House never sent anything to which we could react,” Donahue reminded his peers. “With this, we wanted to tell the public we understand the problem, that there are solutions, and we want to solve the problem.”

That resolution was adopted, 29-3.

In the five days since the Senate Finance committee initially issued their declaration of defiance, the House Republican leadership has been strangely quiet. Their barrage of bombastic videos has slowed markedly, with only an anemic offering by Rep. Nancy Landry (R-Lafayette) posted in response.

They have, however, gotten the Senate’s message, as evidenced by House Appropriations scheduling a meeting bright and early Wednesday morning. They’ll be – finally – hearing twenty Senate measures. Some of those have been pending on the committee’s calendar since late March.

“Gamesmanship – foolishness,” indeed.

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