BATON ROUGE, La. — A more than $28 billion Louisiana operating budget that would make steep cuts across government to protect health programs for the elderly and disabled won the backing Tuesday of a divided state Senate.
Senators who voted for the budget proposal said they didn't support the deep reductions for the financial year that begins July 1 and thought they would devastate critical programs and services. But they said the spending plan demonstrates the need for lawmakers to pass taxes to replace some of the temporary taxes falling off the books in the upcoming year.
"If there's a message that should be told, it's that we have stated our priorities and we have demonstrated the magnitude of the problem," said Finance Committee Chairman Eric LaFleur, the Ville Platte Democrat who handles the budget bill in the Senate.
About $1.4 billion in temporary taxes passed by lawmakers in 2015 and 2016 to plug budget holes are expiring with the start of the new budget year. With other tax offsets, Louisiana is estimated to get $648 million less in general tax dollars next year than this year.
The budget sent back to the House with a 27-10 Senate vote would shield nursing home residents from evictions and keep Louisiana's safety-net hospitals from closure. But to keep things in balance, senators had to slash spending elsewhere.
The proposal would steeply cut state financing to public colleges, eliminate the food stamp program, close the veterans cemetery program, shutter parks and museums, shrink spending on the child welfare agency and scale back public safety programs. The TOPS program would cover only 70 percent of college tuition costs.
Even as they voted for it, senators described the budget proposal as "pretend," ''unrealistic," and "make-believe." Republican and Democratic senators said they hope and expect lawmakers to pass replacement taxes to close — or at least lessen — the shortfall in a special session that Gov. John Bel Edwards called to start next week.
Republicans voted in a bloc for the budget, with GOP senators saying they feel a duty to pass a budget. Democrats split over whether to stall financial decisions until the special session.
Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, a New Orleans Democrat, said senators should wait.
"We know it's inadequate. It's not fair. It's not fair to the people we serve," Peterson said. "This is just an exercise in futility."
Republican House leaders pushed senators to pass a budget with cuts, with House Speaker Taylor Barras saying he thought such a move was needed before he would support moving into the special session.
But the Senate took a different approach than the House in deciding how to divvy up the cuts required to keep the budget in balance without additional money.
On a nearly party-line vote of Republican support, the House backed a budget that would have more steeply cut financing for health services, shuttering safety-net hospitals and strip the state aid that keeps tens of thousands of people who are elderly and disabled in nursing homes and group homes.
It's unclear if the House will back the Senate version of the budget — or whether Edwards would veto a budget if it reaches his desk ahead of the special session. The Democratic governor's administration unsuccessfully urged the Senate to stall the proposal.