Louisiana Legislature Faces Backlash as Surprise Budget Reduction Threatens Health Services
The fallout from the Louisiana Legislature's tumultuous adjournment earlier this month continues to generate anger and concern among lawmakers and health officials. The possibility of a special session is being discussed, and health officials are alarmed by a surprise budget reduction that could cost the Louisiana Department of Health (LDH) nearly a quarter-billion dollars.
LDH Secretary Stephen Russo revealed the potential ramifications of the budget reduction, hurriedly implemented by House leadership in a series of last-minute changes. Russo explained to the Senate Health and Welfare Committee that crucial services such as behavioral health and elderly care could face cuts amounting to $700 million. This reduction could have severe consequences for the state, as LDH's budget relies heavily on federal funding.
Russo expressed his shock at learning about the budget reduction just 30 minutes before the session's end on June 8, stating, "On my way home, I got a call saying we’d been cut $100 million in state general fund. I thought it was a joke, to be honest with you."
In the chaotic final moments of the session, not only was LDH affected, but funding was also slashed for significant infrastructure projects. These included a large container terminal planned by the Port of New Orleans and funds allocated for the renovation of a dangerous state highway in Senator Heather Cloud's district.
Additionally, money designated for K-12 education funding was removed, resulting in teacher pay raises being converted into one-time supplemental payments rather than permanent salary increases.
Both the Senate Health and Welfare Committee and the Senate Finance Committee conducted hastily arranged hearings on Tuesday to assess the potential impacts of the session's chaotic conclusion. Bipartisan frustration was evident in both meetings.
Senator Gerald Boudreaux expressed his concern over the LDH reduction, stating, "$100 million out of a $20 billion budget is a hell of a lot of damn money. These are not games. People in this state will die."
Senator Bodi White, the Chair of the Senate Finance Committee, admitted regret for voting on the final budget bills without adequate knowledge of their contents. He said, "It was a quick judgment call, and I made the wrong judgment in hindsight."
Senator Gregory Tarver suggested that a special legislative session might be necessary to address the problems, despite the challenge of obtaining three-quarters majority votes for bills passed during such sessions.
Governor John Bel Edwards plans to seek appropriation from the Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget to support the Port of New Orleans project. Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne informed lawmakers on Tuesday that the governor is likely to veto some of the last-minute changes. However, the governor's authority to modify the budget through line-item vetoes is limited.
The LDH presented lawmakers with a list of programs that could face funding cuts if the agency's proposed reduction becomes law. The $100 million decrease could result in $31 million less for the Community Behavioral Health Services program, $31 million for an uncompensated care reimbursement fund, and $29 million for the Nursing Home Rebase program, among others. Moreover, each of these programs would also lose additional federal match dollars.
Russo revealed that the department was not provided with specific guidance on which programs to cut in order to meet the $100 million reduction. Instead, the Legislature imposed restrictions on the programs that could not be cut.
The chaotic conclusion of the session has sparked demands for rules prohibiting last-minute budget changes, as well as calls from some House Republicans for a more conservative speaker. House conservatives, dissatisfied with Speaker Clay Schexnayder, have been particularly critical of the handling of the budget votes.
House leadership emphasized that the reduction to LDH should not be considered a "cut" because the agency is still receiving more money than in previous years. Speaker Schexnayder stated in a Tuesday statement that LDH is receiving an overall increase of $144.6 million in state dollars compared to the previous year. He also pointed out that the potential savings resulting from changes in Medicaid eligibility rules were thoroughly discussed.