Cuts hit colleges, health care

Published 11:21 pm Friday, December 16, 2011

BATON ROUGE (AP) — Public colleges will lose a slice of state funding, two state-run health facilities will be shuttered and dozens of state employees could be laid off under the Jindal administration’s deficit-closing plan, which was unveiled Friday and approved by lawmakers.

With a drop in tax forecasts and a shortfall in public school financing, Gov. Bobby Jindal had a $251 million problem in the $25 billion budget for the fiscal year that ends June 30.

The administration used available dollars and federal money to close nearly half the gap. About a $144 million shortfall remained, which Jindal closed by sweeping dollars from set-aside funds in different agencies, savings from a hiring freeze and agency cuts.

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“To eliminate the shortfall, we asked departments to identify targeted cost-savings measures to cut spending while protecting critical services. For many departments, these savings came as a result of reducing operational expenses in travel, supplies, acquisitions, operational services and professional services,” Jindal said.

in a statement Friday.

Louisiana’s public colleges are losing $50 million, taking the biggest hit. The state’s higher education chief divvied up the cuts among college systems and requested budget reduction plans by Dec. 29.

“As you have done in the past, I anticipate you will protect your core mission in the short-term and seek long-term strategies for efficient delivery of services whenever possible,” Commissioner of Higher Education Jim Purcell told college system leaders.

In other areas, the transportation department won’t replace equipment, the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries will delay plans to buy boats and upgrade computer software and dollars will be drained from two economic development incentive programs.

A state-run mental health facility and an institution that cares for the developmentally disabled will be shut down in March by the Department of Health and Hospitals, and those patients will be shifted to other nearby facilities. DHH Secretary Bruce Greenstein said the same number of patients will get care, but the state will need fewer employees.

Across agencies, 290 government jobs will be eliminated, including 98 that are currently filled.

Most of the lost jobs are at the health department, particularly at the two facilities being closed: the Greenwell Springs campus of the Eastern Louisiana Mental Health System and the Leesville Residential and Employment Services Center. Those at Greenwell Springs will be moved to the Jackson campus of the mental health system, and the Leesville residents will be moved to Pinecrest Developmental Center in Pineville.

Supply, travel and overtime expenses are being reduced throughout departments. A hiring freeze enacted earlier this year by Jindal was estimated to account for $16 million in savings that was cut from agencies.

“These are responsible cuts,” said Jindal’s chief budget adviser, Commissioner of Administration Paul Rainwater. He added, “We’re in a tough time, and we’re going to work through this, and we’re going to come out of this.”

House budget committee members voted 17-2 for the plan, while the Senate budget committee backed it in a 9-2 vote.

Lawmakers questioned the use of one-time money to fill some gaps and questioned specific cuts, saying they reduce services to the most needy.

Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, D-New Orleans, said a $1 million reduction to contract services in the Office of Juvenile Justice will mean fewer at-risk children get treatment or counseling services.

“It’s a very vulnerable population that wreaks havoc on my community regularly, and they need help,” Peterson said.

Jindal could have made all the cuts himself, but he would have had to make them in different places and place them more heavily on higher education and health care. Rainwater said the governor wanted to mitigate slashing to colleges and health services, so he drew up a plan that included dollar adjustments, one-time fills and sweeping of set-aside funds that needed legislative approval.

Rep. Patricia Smith, D-Baton Rouge, questioned the use of one-time federal money to help cover the costs of increased student numbers at public schools. She said when that money is spent, lawmakers will have to devise a new way to fill the gap in later years.

“This is kicking down the can, kicking this situation down the road,” she said.

The administration benefited from the fall passage of a constitutional amendment that dedicates an annual stream of tobacco settlement money to the state’s free college tuition program called TOPS.

The amendment, approved by voters, generated about $82 million for TOPS in this fiscal year, according to Division of Administration estimates. That freed up state dollars that would otherwise have had to pay for the college tuition program. Jindal plugged $66 million of that into the budget to stop deeper cuts to state colleges.

The budget rebalancing is needed to account for a downward revision in the state’s income forecast. The state’s revenue projection panel dropped its forecast this week, saying Louisiana is collecting fewer dollars than expected in personal income and severance taxes. Also, the state’s funding formula for public school districts was running over budget because more students are in public schools than was projected.