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La. House committee advances budget funding TOPS, reducing other agencies

House Appropriations Committee (Source: WAFB) House Appropriations Committee (Source: WAFB)
BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) -

A Louisiana House committee advanced a budget proposal Monday that would fully fund TOPS but leave almost everything else with a cut.

The House Appropriations Committee advanced the plan for the 2016-2017 fiscal year with a vote of 18-4. HB 1, which takes into account the state’s $600 million shortfall, was proposed by Rep. Cameron Henry, R-Metairie, 

"While the governor's recommended amendments put higher education last among the percentage of funding of the targeted amount, the amendments you have before you put them among the top," said Henry, who chairs the appropriations committee. 

The plan fully funds TOPS, which is a change from the budget proposal by Gov. John Bel Edwards. Under Edwards' plan, only about a third of the scholarships would be funded, leaving the program about $183 million short. 

"It's extremely valuable to all parents and students within the state right now. I've seen a big difference in the number of students who are staying in state," Henry said. 

As part of the proposal, other agencies would see steep cuts. The Office of the Inspector General, which investigates cases of fraud within state government, would see its funding eliminated altogether. 

Some lawmakers have had problems with investigations run by the IG office in the past. Henry said that some committee members found the IG’s office to be redundant, and said that the Attorney General and State Police could handle the investigations instead. 

Testifying in committee, Inspector General Stephen Street told lawmakers he takes on cases that others cannot and that his office actually saves the state money, echoing remarks made in a previous appropriations committee hearing

"We have independent measures in place that allow us to wade into the toxic cases, and by that I mean the toxic cases that are going to infuriate the people in this building, and in particular the ones on this committee," said Street, who also questioned the optics of lawmakers gutting the budget of a government watchdog. 

Also under the budget proposal, the money for state partnership hospitals would be redistributed. Under the governor’s proposal from last month, the state would have been forced to cut off funding to four of the state’s public-private hospitals, which treat the uninsured. Without funding, they could be forced to shut down. 

The four hospitals to lose funding under the plan are located in Lake Charles, Bogalusa, Houma, and Alexandria. 

Henry’s proposal, meanwhile, would have all of the hospitals sharing an across-the-board cut. That includes Our Lady of the Lake in Baton Rouge. The exact extent of the cut was not given at the time of the hearing. However, some lawmakers including Rep. Pat Smith, D-Baton Rouge, worried that a deep cut to all hospitals could lead to many still being forced to end their partnership with the state. 

The Division of Administration is reportedly currently working on renegotiating those partnerships, though details have not yet been released. 

Speaking at the Baton Rouge Press Club Monday, Gov. Edwards criticized Henry’s plan. 

"I think it’s a bad idea to simply take across the board cuts because that’s not indicative of the amount of work that you should really put into it to show where your priorities are," he said. 

Aside from HB 1, the committee also advanced a bill that would effectively give the Attorney General’s Office its own standalone, independent budget. 

Henry told lawmakers that his HB 105 would allow the AG to move money around in his department more easily. While legislators would have oversight for midyear adjustments, the Division of Administration would not. 

"I'd like to give a little bit of authority to the people who were actually elected to do their job," Henry said. 

Still others, including Rep. Walt Leger, D-New Orleans, joined Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne in questioning the bill’s constitutionality. 

"It purports to elevate the Attorney General to a branch of government," Dardenne told lawmakers. 

HB 105 passed through committee with a vote of 17-6. 

Both HB 1 and HB 105 now head to the House floor for consideration. Debate is scheduled for Thursday. 

Copyright 2016 WAFB. All rights reserved.

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