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Schools, TOPS, health care facing budget axe

Schools, TOPS, health care facing budget axe

The long awaited announcement about how Louisiana can shave $750 million from next year’s budget came on Tuesday, and Gov. John Bel Edwards did not sugarcoat the bad news.

“There was one guy who could do the loaves and fishes trick and it ain’t me,” Gov. Edwards told the House Appropriations Committee.

The governor strongly hinted that he will call lawmakers back into a special session as soon as the regular session closes on June 6, saying “I believe we need more revenue.”

Appropriations Chairman Rep. Cameron Henry (R-Metairie) pushed back. Focusing on a proposed $183 million cut to the popular TOPS scholarship program, he suggested shifting other funds to preserve TOPS, then call a special session in the fall. By then, he said, the effects of cuts should be fully known, and perhaps new revenues could be avoided.

But by then, damage that could not be undone may be inflicted on programs that are necessary for the people of the state. Gov. Edwards said that students can’t wait until fall to know whether or not TOPS will be fully funded, and that hospitals may face closure in the meantime.

Aside from the 66% cuts to TOPS, Gov. Edwards proposed cutting $44 million from public school funding and $75 million from hospitals in Houma, Lake Charles, Alexandria and Bogalusa that serve the poor and uninsured.

Education cuts would affect the continuation of a teacher pay raise, $7 million in support for lunch programs at some private and religious schools, and $6 million from the voucher program.
Higher education, which has suffered more than most areas of the budget during the Jindal years, will endure yet another $46 million cut.

MFP rejection threatens teacher salaries

In a private meeting with leaders from LFT and LAE, Governor Edwards explained the dilemma he faces in asking the Senate Education Committee to reject public education’s proposed $3.7 billion Minimum Foundation Program formula.

As a state representative, Gov. Edwards convinced lawmakers to include nearly $40 million in the current year’s budget, primarily to continue a teacher pay raise. That money was appropriated outside the MFP, but legislators asked the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education to memorialize the funding in the coming year’s formula.

BESE did that, sending the legislature an MFP proposal with an increase amounting to just over 1.3%.

But given the magnitude of cuts to other state programs, the governor said, he could not justify the increase in the MFP. If lawmakers can agree on new revenues in a special session, he said, the cuts could be restored.

When the Senate Education Committee considered the MFP in SCR 44 by Sen. Blade Morrish (R-Lake Charles), LFT Chief of Staff Marcus Fontenot urged members to approve the resolution and send it to the Senate for action.

“We have an obligation to our members and the children of the state to ask that you approve this resolution,” Fontenot said.

Fontenot also asked the senators to support the call for a special session in early June, so that full funding for education can be restored.

The committee unanimously approved rejecting the MFP, sending it back to BESE to be reconsidered. If BESE takes no action, the formula will automatically revert to the previous year’s funding level.

Read more in the LFT Weekly Legislative Digest. Click here.