BATON ROUGE — House Republican leaders Monday prioritized Louisiana's popular TOPS college tuition program in next year's budget, proposing to shield the awards from cuts while making steep reductions across safety-net health services for the poor and disabled.
Lawmakers on the House Appropriations Committee rewrote the $27 billion spending plan for the financial year that begins July 1. The heavily Republican committee decided to make the lion's share of cuts to close a $648 million shortfall in the health department.
Committee members spurned the approach proposed by Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards, which would have left TOPS without full financing for the 2018-19 school year and tens of thousands of students facing reductions to their tuition aid unless taxes are passed.
"Without TOPS, we struggle to keep our best and brightest students in Louisiana," said Appropriations Chairman Cameron Henry, a Metairie Republican.
Instead of cutting TOPS, lawmakers on the committee backed slashing to Louisiana's safety-net hospitals that care for the poor and uninsured and other health programs that assist the elderly and people with disabilities. And while the nearly $300 million TOPS program would be protected, college campuses would take $22 million in other reductions.
"This is totally out of whack," said Rep. Patricia Smith, a Baton Rouge Democrat.
Rep. Franklin Foil, a Baton Rouge Republican who proposed to safeguard TOPS, said students are making decisions and "now is an important time to show that we want to fund TOPS."
All but one Republican backed the spending plan, which was approved with a 17-6 vote, while all Democrats voted against it. The full House debates the bill Thursday.
Edwards trashed the proposal.
"This budget document is not worth the paper it's printed on, and gives nothing but false hope to students and parents who want to attend a Louisiana university or community and technical college," Edwards said in a statement. "What we saw today from the House Appropriations Committee was not a serious attempt to tackle the problems we face."
Louisiana's budget shortfall is caused by the expiration of temporary taxes. A special session called by Edwards earlier this year failed to raise any money to close the gap. Edwards wants another special session to consider replacement taxes, but some House Republican leaders are trying to find ways to balance the budget without passing taxes.
The size of the budget gap fell to $648 million after the state's income forecasting panel last week accounted for the impact of the federal tax overhaul. The Appropriations Committee spread out the additional money recognized.
Cuts to health care spending trigger the loss of federal matching dollars and other revenue sources tied to state spending. The budget proposal would shrink spending on the health department by $1.6 billion compared to this year.
Safety-net hospital managers have warned the proposed reductions would lead to clinic shutdowns, widespread service eliminations and possible hospital closures. Medical school leaders said that would give them fewer places to train students and fewer dollars to run their programs.
Thousands of nursing home residents would be notified they need to find another place to live because their services are being cut, said New Orleans Rep. Walt Leger, the House's top-ranking Democrat.
Corrections officials say the cuts could lead to overcrowding at state prisons if sheriffs start refusing to house inmates at their local jails.
"There is not enough money to do everything that is important to the people of this state," Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne, the governor's chief budget adviser, told the committee.