BATON ROUGE — TOPS, higher education, prisons and foster care were spared cuts in the Senate version of the budget passed here Saturday after members chose to spend $233 million more than the House.
The House had set aside $206 million that it could appropriate in next year's $29 billion budget because members there said revenue estimates have been consistently short, creating midyear cuts.
"We're not going to leave unspent money on the table," said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Eric LaFleur, D-Ville Platte. "We thought it was a little bit more responsible than what was sent over (from the House)."
"It's a curious thing as to how two bodies (Senate and House) that represent the same people take such different approaches."
Despite the differences, LaFleur said he believes the House will be receptive to many of the changes when the final version of the budget is likely to be hashed out in a conference committee.
"I don't anticipate the bill changing very much," the Acadiana lawmaker said.
House Speaker Taylor Barras, R-New Iberia, shared that sentiment in an interview with reporters Friday, although Barras said he expects some compromise before the session ends Thursday.
"I'm confident we can get there," Barras said. "It will take a lot of deliberation, but as long as as everybody's willing to compromise, I think we'll get there."
That would allow the Legislature to avoid a special session called preemptively by Gov. John Bel Edwards if the two sides can't agree or Edwards vetoes the budget.
One thing that's unlikely to change is fully funding the state's popular college scholarship program TOPS, which both the House and Senate made a priority.
This year's TOPS awards were cuts by about 30 percent because of strained state finances.
The Senate budget also includes $7.2 million so the Acadiana Center for Youth in Bunkie can open as a state-of-the-art youth prison.
Construction of the $20 million facility was complete almost two years ago, but the state hasn't had the money to open and operate it.
LaFleur said all other agencies and departments aside from higher education, prisons and foster care were cut at least 2 percent.
Sen. John Milkovich, D-Shreveport, was the lone vote against the Senate version of the budget.
He cited $18 million in raises for Civil Service employees as one of the reasons for his dissent.
"The bottom line is I would love to see us move forward with cuts of scores of millions (of dollars) to areas where the expenditures can't be justified," Milkovich said afterward, pointed to the state education department as one such agency.
But LaFleur said the Senate's budget allocations "don't go beyond was is absolutely necessary."
"This is an austere budget," he said. "I think we're doing the right thing. It's prudent; it's responsible."
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