House spurns GOP leaders, crafts budget

BATON ROUGE (AP) — In a tight vote, lawmakers in the Louisiana House spurned their GOP leaders Wednesday and backed a $28 billion-plus state operating budget that would use every dollar forecast to be available for spending.
In a 56-44 vote, the House backed an approach for the financial year that begins July 1 that, if approved when it had first been suggested by senators, could have averted Louisiana’s latest taxpayer-funded special session.
The vote was a blow to House Republican leaders who wanted to withhold nearly $100 million from the spending bill, in anticipation that Louisiana’s income predictions are too optimistic.
But it was a victory for Gov. John Bel Edwards and the Senate, who had pushed for a similar version of the budget to what won House passage. The Democratic governor praised the version backed by the House as “a responsible spending plan.”
“I appreciate the House’s work with us on this bill, and I look forward to swift passage in the Louisiana Senate,” Edwards said in a statement.
Rep. Jack McFarland, a Winnfield Republican who opposed the proposal, said he was disappointed “that once again we’re perhaps spending money that we won’t have.”
“We had an opportunity to be prudent with the people’s money, and we chose not to,” he said.
A majority of House GOP lawmakers expect the state’s income forecast will come up short, forcing midyear cuts, the situation that has happened for nearly a decade. But critics of the approach say that could unnecessarily force harmful cuts on agencies.
The Edwards administration said it will instruct agencies not to spend every dime as a hedge in case the forecast is wrong — and the House included language in the budget asking the administration to keep $60 million from agencies as a deficit-avoidance measure.
Several rank-and-file Republicans in the majority-GOP chamber voted with Democrats against their leaders. Ten Republicans crossed party lines to back the amendment sponsored by Rep. Walt Leger, the House’s top-ranking Democrat, who rewrote the spending bill to include all the dollars available. That amendment passed in a 53-50 vote.
House GOP leaders’ refusal to take up that Senate proposal helped cause the negotiation meltdown that forced lawmakers into a special legislative session. If the Senate agrees to the proposal this week and adopts it without changes, lawmakers could adjourn the special legislative session as early as Friday, before the Monday deadline.
Questioned about whether lawmakers could have avoided the special session entirely, Republican House Speaker Taylor Barras said he thought it was unlikely a similar version of the budget would have won passage on the final day of the regular session. He said the special session gave lawmakers more time to scrutinize the proposal.

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