The Associated Press May 17, 2011, 4:17PM ET

La House committee wraps up work on budget

Money for salaries, travel expenses and supplies across state agencies would be trimmed and an economic development fund would be raided, under Louisiana budget plans approved Tuesday by the House Appropriations Committee, which stripped out uncertain revenue proposed by Gov. Bobby Jindal.

Lawmakers on the committee removed all dollars suggested by Jindal that were tied to the passage of other pieces of legislation. That includes money from a proposed sale of three state prisons, from a proposed rerouting of tobacco settlement dollars to the state's free college tuition program called TOPS and from a bill that would boost retirement costs for state employees.

None of those proposals have yet received final passage, and House leaders say it would be inappropriate to use such financing when its availability is shaky and uncertain at best.

"We now have a balanced budget that does not use contingency funding," Rep. Jim Fannin, D-Jonesboro, chairman of the committee declared after his members unanimously agreed to 18 pages of changes with little discussion.

To account for the loss of those dollars, the committee used $82 million from the state's economic development "mega-fund" that had been set aside to attract large manufacturing and business projects to Louisiana.

The committee also cut about $139 million across agencies, including money that had been planned to pay salaries, travel expenses and supplies, for insurance payments in the state-run Recovery School District and for a proposed increase in a school voucher program in New Orleans.

Among the cuts, lawmakers eliminated about $38 million the governor's office had included to cover an extra pay period that falls in the upcoming fiscal year, a quirk of the calendar that occurs only in certain years. Instead, under the House committee plans, agencies would have to find a way to provide state workers with those paychecks without additional funding.

Acknowledging the depth of the state's money troubles, members of the Appropriations Committee made a rare choice not to insert any of their favored pet projects or other earmarks into the state budget bill. Those items typically have been funded at $30 million or more, even in recent years when state services received cuts.

The nearly $25 billion spending plan for 2011-12 heads to the full House for debate early next week, possibly Monday. The next fiscal year begins July 1. Lawmakers aren't expected to finish their work on the budget until June.

Since the governor's budget was introduced, lawmakers had raised concerns about Jindal's use of funding sources tied to legislation that hasn't passed and that in one instance needs approval from voters in the fall election. The governor defended his budget proposal Tuesday as responsible and a creative way to deal with a shortfall expected to exceed more than $1 billion next year.

The committee also voted 16-4 Tuesday for a separate bill that would scrape about $230 million from government set-aside funds targeted for motorcycle safety programs, artificial reef construction, economic development, housing, insurance payments, reptile research and more, and plug that money into next year's budget.

The money slated to be poached ranges from just $3 in a fund for school accountability rewards to $60 million from a fund that holds premiums charged to state agencies for insurance coverage. Much of the money from the 56 funds would be used to plug gaps in the state's Medicaid program and draw down additional federal matching cash.

Several lawmakers questioned whether the so-called "fund sweep" was appropriate. Fannin said the dollars were needed to keep the budget in balance.

"I'm not going to vote for the sweeping of those funds because that's not what the money was supposed to be spent on," said Rep. Jim Morris, R-Oil City.

As it made its changes, the House committee maintained full funding for the TOPS free tuition program and limited most cuts to across-the-board reductions, rather than slashing public colleges and health services, the two areas usually most vulnerable to cuts.

Cuts originally proposed by Jindal remain in the budget, like the elimination of at-risk youth education programs, reductions to charity hospital care and outpatient pharmacies for the poor, and cuts to parks and tourism programs. Nearly 4,000 jobs would be cut, which could force layoffs of up to 2,000 workers in state agencies.

The funding formula for public school districts would remain flat, though other education programs would take a hit.

Spending would be down from $26 billion this year, but much of the reduction is tied to the loss of federal dollars, including expiring stimulus money, hurricane recovery grants and one-time money for oil spill response efforts. State general fund spending would increase nearly 7 percent.

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Online:

The budget bill is filed as House Bill 1 and can be found at http://www.legis.state.la.us


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