At least $155M in gaps, mainly in health care programs, identified in House-approved budget



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BATON ROUGE, Louisiana — Louisiana's state senators were told Monday that the House version of next year's budget is short at least $155 million in identified needs, with holes mainly in public health care services for the poor and uninsured.

But the gaps could be even larger, because of questionable financing sources used by the House. And that's not counting other items senators might add to the wish list.

The Senate Finance Committee, which is the first stopping point in the Senate for the House-backed budget bills, spent part of Memorial Day digging into the details of the proposals advanced by the House.

Senators were trying to determine which agencies face cuts next year, to decide where they might want to add new money if they have it or where they might want to reshuffle existing dollars to account for their priorities.

After Gov. Bobby Jindal introduced his budget proposal, which included a hefty shortfall, the House passed a package of tax changes to raise more money for state coffers. That, combined with money from improved income forecasts and other patchwork financing, would close about $860 million of the gap in the House version of the budget.

The money was used to stop deep cuts to colleges, fully fund the K-12 public school financing formula and fill some health care shortages.

Commissioner of Administration Kristy Nichols, the governor's chief budget adviser, outlined a list of items labeled as shortfalls by either legislative leaders in the House or by the Jindal administration.

The total gap for the fiscal year that begins July 1 is as much as $155 million "depending on what your priorities are and what you want to fund," Nichols said. Also, she said $8 million in shortfalls need to be closed before the current budget year ends June 30.

Most remaining gaps, after House action, are in the state health department and in payments to the operators of LSU's privatized hospitals. In addition, without more money, LSU's medical schools in New Orleans and Shreveport would be left to absorb millions in insurance and retiree costs from the privatization deals.

Medical school leaders have said those added costs could leave them struggling to pay their bills, and senators questioned whether the financial burden could jeopardize the medical schools' accreditation.

"They're awfully close to the edge," said Sen. Sherri Smith Buffington, R-Keithville.

In the House version of the budget, cuts also would fall across public health care services, state parks, museums and agricultural services.

The list of shortfalls could grow by another $28 million or more, depending on what the Senate wants to include.

Sherry Phillips-Hymel, the Senate's chief budget analyst, said of $18 million in hurricane recovery money used by the House for some health care expenses, "We're not sure if that money actually exists."

She also noted the House didn't add money to the education department. Superintendent of Education John White asked for $10 million more for standardized testing, saying Jindal's funding recommendation for the education agency would wreck the state's ability to measure student performance.

Nichols offered ideas for additional money to plug into the budget. She said the lottery has a $27 million fund balance from unclaimed winnings, and she said legislative proposals to raise the costs of a driver's license and a vehicle title could generate $79 million.

The Senate also is considering House bills that would raise the cigarette tax and cut tax break programs. Senators could tweak those to drum up additional money to help the budget.


Online:

The budget bills are filed as House Bills 1 and 800: http://www.legis.la.gov

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