A $34 Billion Budget Orgy Passes The Louisiana House

We talked about this back last month when it first started moving through the process, before the Legislature ran out of time to pass the state’s budget. Essentially, after eight years of screeching about the fiscally-deficient practice of using one-time money to fund recurring expenses, something Bobby Jindal was excoriated for by legislators calling themselves fiscal hawks, this year at the Louisiana capitol they’re doing more of it than ever.

And nobody seems to be upset about a $34 billion budget, which is actually $39 billion with all the spending measures included, when the state’s economy is in a state of collapse and government is hanging on only by a thread supplied through one-time federal aid.

The Louisiana House unanimously agreed Wednesday to a $34 billion operating budget for next year that includes hundreds of millions in federal coronavirus aid, with lawmakers cautioning about future financial uncertainties and disagreeing over hospital payments.

The spending plan for the financial year that begins July 1 would keep most programs and services from cuts, by plugging gaps with temporary federal dollars that Louisiana, like other states, is receiving to respond to the COVID-19 disease caused by the coronavirus.

But lawmakers acknowledged they have concerns about what happens a year later, when the temporary federal stopgap aid disappears. If the state’s tax collections don’t rebound from the deep dive caused by the coronavirus, lawmakers would be left considering steep cuts or tax hikes.

Rep. Lance Harris, an Alexandria Republican, defended the use of the federal dollars ahead of the House’s 100-0 vote for the budget.

“Any sensible person would not send that money back to Washington. They would use it to fill the gap,” Harris said. But he also cautioned that House lawmakers “need to get ready for next year” when that money falls away.

The budget, sponsored by Appropriations Chairman Jerome “Zee” Zeringue, a Houma Republican, heads next to the Senate for debate.

Much of the House debate involved Gov. John Bel Edwards’ administration’s new Medicaid payment plan for hospitals. The new payment model, which still needs federal approval, is estimated to draw down an extra $745 million to $1 billion annually in federal cash for the state’s hospitals.

Rep. Rick Edmonds, a Baton Rouge Republican, sought to require approval from the joint House and Senate budget committee before the new payment plan could take effect, if it wins federal backing.

“This is about holding folks accountable,” Edmonds said.

But he drew only 20 votes from conservative Republicans to include that language in the budget, while 80 lawmakers both Republican and Democrat voted against it.

Major spending cuts are needed. There are only a few minor ones in the budget. Most of state government is getting an increase.

And the Legislature is going to allow John Bel Edwards to expand Medicaid by a billion dollars a year, when the waste associated with that expenditure has proven to be off the charts.

The word we’re hearing is Louisiana’s hospitals are shoveling money out of their doors to lobbyists and political consultants so fast as to shock observers at the capitol. Fifty thousand dollars a month here, $45,000 a month there, and on down. Meanwhile, Baton Rouge General Hospital just announced they’re re-opening their emergency room at their mid-city campus which had been closed for five years since that ER was not profitable; now it is? Why?

Your tax dollars is why. You’re paying for an emergency room in a part of town where scant few people have private health insurance, and we all know that emergency rooms are where more money is wasted on medical care than anywhere else in the healthcare system.

And there wasn’t a single vote in the Louisiana House of Representatives protesting this profligate waste and disrespect of taxpayer dollars.

Yes, this is an inconvenient time to engage in an existential fight for Louisiana’s fiscal future, and yes, making needed budget cuts will surely bring on a veto from Edwards which would induce him to call legislators back into another special session in July. All of those factors are the reason this is being done.

But when the legislators themselves are openly worrying about next year, when unless the fast outpouring of federal swag once again drenches Louisiana’s state treasury with one-time money there will be Armageddon, wouldn’t it be prudent to at least try to pare back the state budget by a couple hundred million?

Apparently not. Once again, those hoping for budgetary sanity in Louisiana are just like Tulane fans in their admonition to “wait ’til next year.”



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