Louisiana's operating budget is in the hands of state senators, who are sifting through the version drawn up in the House and hearing from agencies that the $29.5 billion spending plan will force damaging cuts.
Among the issues that are at the core of the debate is whether to spend the full amount of general state tax dollars forecast to be available in the 2017-18 fiscal year that begins July 1.
The Senate Finance Committee started combing through the House proposal this week, holding daily hearings to review how the spending plan would impact services and programs. Senators are expected to draft their version of the budget within the next two weeks. The legislative session must end by June 8.
HOW MUCH TO SPEND?
In the proposal crafted by House Republican leaders, lawmakers left $206 million on the table that Louisiana's income forecasting panel projects will come into the treasury.
The House didn't spend the money to hedge against expectations the estimates are too rosy, with GOP leaders saying the state has had 15 midyear deficits over the past nine years because the forecasts have been too high.
Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards wants to spend all available money, saying that without it, health services, the child welfare agency and prisons would face unnecessary and harmful cuts. He has called the House version of the budget a "non-starter." Democrats in the majority-GOP House largely opposed the budget proposal.
The Senate Finance Committee is in the middle of an agency-by-agency review of the House budget proposal, hearing mainly complaints about the level of financing proposed for departments and programs.
The Edwards administration says the House budget leaves open how to allocate the reductions made by stripping out the $206 million, but makes too many restrictions on where lawmakers can make cuts. Administration officials told senators the spending plan focuses too heavily on eliminating vacant jobs, many of which agencies say need to be filled to provide critical services.
Among the areas of greatest interest are the health department and public colleges. They're scheduled for review next week. To fully finance the TOPS college tuition program, lawmakers cut money from health services for the poor, elderly and disabled.
CURRENT YEAR GAP
In addition to deciding if they want to restore dollars to next year's spending plan, senators must also determine whether they want to give agencies money to fill an $84 million gap in the current financial year's budget.
Senate budget analysts say agencies have $30 million in flood-related costs from last summer that haven't been covered. The corrections department has a budget hole of $8 million, at least partially attributed to higher-than-expected medication costs for prisoners. The state owes parish sheriffs nearly $26 million for housing state prisoners. Local public school districts are owed $12 million because more students than expected showed up in schools. And the Louisiana State Police has a budget gap because it didn't receive some of the money it had anticipated.