La. leaders start reworking Jindal’s budget

Published 11:23 pm Tuesday, April 28, 2009

BATON ROUGE (AP) — Lawmakers began reworking Gov. Bobby Jindal’s budget proposal for next year, approving changes Tuesday that would stall pay raises and shift money to arts grants, parks, agriculture programs and health care services.

The House Appropriations Committee agreed to tap into $43 million from an expired insurance fund that was used to lure insurance companies to the state. The committee also voted to stop $34 million in planned pay raises for thousands of state employees.

The money would be used to reverse cuts Jindal proposed in his $26.7 billion spending plan for the year that begins July 1.

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It was the first round of tweaking to Jindal’s budget recommendations. The committee plans to wrap up its work on the budget next week and send it to the full House for debate.

Committee members shifted dollars to restore funding for arts programs, state historic sites, agriculture extension services, health care services for the developmentally disabled and care for the uninsured at hospitals.

‘‘We’re just trying to keep as best we can the programs we think are important to the state,’’ said Rep. Jim Fannin, D-Jonesboro, chairman of the committee.

Rep. Karen Carter Peterson, D-New Orleans, tried to use $100 million from a state economic development fund, called the ‘‘mega-fund,’’ to stop nearly half the cuts proposed for state colleges. It failed on a 6-13 vote.

‘‘These cuts will devastate higher education, take us back decades,’’ Peterson said.

Lawmakers on the committee said they wanted to find ways to lessen the higher education cuts but didn’t want to deplete a fund designed to bring new jobs and businesses to Louisiana.

While they kept the mega-fund in tact, the committee took money slated for the near-automatic pay raises that thousands of Louisiana government employees get each year.

Lawmakers have repeatedly complained about the ‘‘merit pay’’ raises, saying too many workers are getting them without comprehensive performance reviews and saying the raises are inappropriate when core services are on the chopping block. Across state government, the 4 percent raises are routine and viewed as a way to give employees a cost-of-living adjustment.

Under the committee amendments, some of the pay raise money instead would be used in agencies to plug other budget holes, while $13.5 million of it was shifted to the LSU AgCenter, the Southern University Ag Center and an arts program that provides grants to local artists in every parish of the state.

Meanwhile, the committee also tapped into an insurance grant fund aimed at improving homeowners’ access to private insurance after the 2005 hurricanes. The ability to issue grants from the fund has expired with $74 million remaining, according to budget analyst estimates.

Several lawmakers are pushing proposals to use the money for other insurance programs.

But the Appropriations Committee targeted the fund as a source of money to reverse planned cuts for a program that provides home- and community-based services for the disabled and for payments to public, rural and nonprofit hospitals that take care of large numbers of uninsured patients. Money from the fund also was shifted to state historic sites, to keep them from limiting their operating hours to two days each week.

Other dollars were shifted from the state-run Recovery School District to a dropout prevention program.