BATON ROUGE, La. -- Gov. John Bel Edwards on Tuesday proposed closing a $750 million budget shortfall with deep cuts to the TOPS free college tuition program, safety net hospitals for the poor, colleges, and public schools.
The Democratic governor personally unveiled his recommendations to the House Appropriations Committee with the opening statement: "I wish I had better news. I don't. But we're going to live in the real world."
He said the spending plan wouldn't provide enough money to pay for all of Louisiana's critical services, but he said it reflects the financing currently expected to be available in the 2016-17 fiscal year that begins July 1.
TOPS TUITION PROGRAM
Edwards' proposal would provide a little more than one-third of the nearly $300 million financing needed to completely fund TOPS. It would leave the highly popular program $183 million short of what is needed to give full tuition awards to the thousands of students that will be eligible in the upcoming school year.
Under current law, that level of financing would only pay for students with ACT scores of 26 or higher. But lawmakers are considering a bill, supported by the governor, that would instead make across-the-board cuts so all students eligible for TOPS would get some tuition financing.
SAFETY NET HOSPITALS
The governor's spending plan would only pay for the privatized LSU hospitals in Shreveport, Monroe, New Orleans, Lafayette and Baton Rouge, giving each a 3 percent cut. Those were prioritized because they train the largest numbers of medical students, said health department Secretary Rebekah Gee.
Safety net hospitals and clinics in Bogalusa, Lake Charles, Alexandria and Houma would be left without financing, threatening them with closure.
Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne said he told hospital managers the administration wants to continue talks about ways to provide additional financing to the facilities.
"We don't want to see these hospitals closed," he said. "We asked them not to push the panic button, not to freak out."
Services offered to the elderly and people with developmental disabilities also would be reduced.
In education, colleges would lose $46 million and the K-12 public school financing formula would lose $50 million. Nearly $16 million in assistance for private schools would be stripped.
Edwards proposes to cut $6 million from the state's voucher program that provides taxpayer-financed tuition to private schools. Funding would still be provided for 7,100 students, but schools would receive 14 percent less for each student.
Payments to Louisiana's private prison operators and sheriffs that house state prisoners in their local jails would take reductions. All 11 re-entry centers for state prisoners would be closed.
Three state museums, five state parks and seven state historic sites would be shuttered. And a new juvenile lockup facility in Bunkie wouldn't open as scheduled.
State agencies that don't rely on the state's general tax revenue for income and instead get their financing from dedicated revenue sources such as fees and fines wouldn't face cuts. That includes the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, the insurance department and the transportation department.
Edwards also isn't proposing reductions to the Louisiana National Guard, the Department of Veterans Affairs and the state ethics administration. He wants to protect the state Public Defender Board from any new cuts, amid ongoing financing shortfalls for indigent defense around the state.
The governor said the cuts would be worse without his plan to expand Louisiana's Medicaid program. The administration estimates the state will save $184 million next year by taking advantage of enhanced federal financing rates.
Lawmakers raised taxes in a special legislative session earlier this year to lessen cuts, but it wasn't enough to fill all gaps. They can't raise taxes in the current regular session that runs through June 6.
Edwards said he'll seek another special session, likely in June, to try to boost taxes further to help close the shortfall.
"Make no mistake. We do need additional revenue," he said.