Covering Louisiana

Jun 22, 2011 5:56 AM by Lauren Wilson & AP

$25B La. budget wins final legislative passage

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - A nearly $25 billion budget to finance state government operations next year received final legislative passage Tuesday, wrapping up the largest outstanding work that needed completion before lawmakers can adjourn later this week.
The House agreed to a final version of the 2011-12 budget with a 101-0 vote, approving Senate changes that restored $200 million the House had proposed to cut. After three years of contentious budget negotiations between the two chambers, House and Senate leaders worked together as senators crafted their version of the spending plans, helping to smooth the budget's passage.
"It's amazing what happens down here when you can communicate and work together," House Appropriations Committee Chairman Jim Fannin said.
The budget gives Gov. Bobby Jindal much of what he wanted funded - but not in the fashion he proposed to pay for it. Lawmakers stripped out dollars Jindal wanted from prison sales and a retirement increase on state employees. Neither item received final passage, so senators instead used federal funds and other one-time dollars to plug the gap.
"There's no smoke and mirrors, that sort of stuff. It is an honest-to-God balanced budget as it stands today," said Rep. John Bel Edwards, D-Amite, a Democratic leader in the House.
The new fiscal year begins July 1.
Jindal, who can line-item veto individual items from the spending plans, praised the final version of the budget sent to his desk, saying it preserved critical education, public safety and health care services.
"We think it's a very, very good budget for the people of Louisiana. They've done a great job of protecting our key priorities, allowing us to move our state forward," the governor said Tuesday.
Passage of the spending plans comes with two days remaining in the legislative session, a contrast with many previous years when budget debates have gone down to the wire.
"I think that we have an instrument today that meets our needs of this state, does not meet our wants," said Fannin, D-Jonesboro.
The budget uses a patchwork of increased federal money, one-time dollars and cuts to close a more than $1 billion gap that was projected when the regular session began in April. For the first time in decades, it contains no legislative earmarks, according to lawmakers. Federal stimulus dollars that had propped up agencies this year fall out of the budget next year.
Though the total budget will drop $1.5 billion next year, state general fund spending will increase by $500 million. Despite concerns before session began that higher education and health care would face deep, devastating cuts, those were avoided.
Senators had to work around new hurdles added by House members pushing to shrink state government and to use only continuing revenue streams for recurring services and programs. Senators shuffled dollars around agencies, tapped into federal and other one-time funds, but also matched the money only to items that don't crop up every year.
An estimated $323 million in one-time money is slated to pay for ongoing agency expenses. Fannin said that's less than state revenue is expected to grow a year later.
To make the plans work, lawmakers raided two-thirds of an economic development fund used to attract large manufacturing facilities to Louisiana, taking about $82 million despite complaints from Economic Development Secretary Stephen Moret that the move could take the state out of competition for more than a dozen projects.
The economic development dollars will be returned if lawmakers and voters in the fall election approve a proposed constitutional amendment that dedicates a stream of tobacco settlement money to a college tuition program.
"We're fine with this mechanism as long as they put this money back," Jindal said.
House-backed plans that the Jindal administration said would have cut foster care programs, shuttered five prisons and forced deep reductions in health care services were reversed by the Senate, which worked with the governor's office to find and tap into additional sources of cash to fill the gaps.
About 3,450 state government jobs will be eliminated. Fannin said about 1,600 of those positions are currently filled.
The House also gave final passage to a series of budget bills that made all the financing pieces work and that filled gaps in the current fiscal year. Still outstanding is the state's construction budget, the final spending plan awaiting passage from lawmakers.

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