By Paul Braun and Tryfon Boukouvidis, LSU Manship School News Service
BATON ROUGE–A clearer picture emerged Thursday about the winners and losers in the most recent shuffling of how the Legislature would divide the revenue from extending four-tenths of a cent of sales tax.
Republicans touted the four-tenths plan as a way to restore full funding to higher education, Go Grants, and district attorneys’ salaries while shaving one-tenth of a penny off a sales tax extension that Gov. John Bel Edwards proposed.
But under that plan, TOPS scholarships would be cut by 10 percent, sheriffs would receive $11 million less than last year for housing state prisoners and other departments would be funded at standstill budget levels.
“Tell me what you need, not what you want,” Rep. Cameron Henry, R-Metairie, told one Democrat. “Are they going to be happy they have reductions? Of course not. But you and I have both been here long enough to know not everyone will love it.”
A highlights sheet released by the committee indicated that the food stamp program would be fully funded, but officials in charge of it said Thursday that the money might not be enough to save the program.
Rep. Terry Landry, D-New Iberia and the sponsor of a bill to bump the sales tax extension up to half of a cent, criticized Republicans for wanting to shrink state government while state employees are “leaving every day” for the relative stability of private sector jobs.
“All those individuals we rely on every single day to make our state safe, to educate our children, to improve our infrastructure, and we’re arguing about a half a penny,” Landry said. “Most people cast it to the side. Most people don’t stoop to pick it up.”
The House Appropriations Committee advanced a supplementary budget bill late Wednesday based on the revenue that would be generated by a GOP-backed sales tax bill that would renew four-tenths of an expiring fifth penny of sales tax.
Besides falling $11 million short of last year’s level for payments to local sheriffs for housing state prisoners, the Corrections Department also would lose $12 million off last year’s budget for administration. That would mean cancelling planned repairs, officials said, and possibly eliminating a long-awaited pay raise for corrections officers.
Sheriffs now receive a $24.39 per diem for each state prisoner they house, significantly less than the daily cost of housing an offender in a state-run facility.
More than half of the state’s prisoners are housed in parish jails. Corrections officials have said housing offenders at this rate amounts to “lock and feed,” limiting the rehabilitative programming sheriffs can offer.
“People have the mistaken idea that it’s a money maker or a profit generator, and it’s not,” said Caddo Parish Sheriff Steve Prator about housing state inmates. “Any cut at all will hurt us a lot.”
Henry’s plan would restore $20 million to the Office of Juvenile Justice, but it would still leave $14.8 million worth of projects and initiatives unfunded.
Most of these funds would have been directed to opening a new children’s correctional center in Lafayette and implementing a new law that would require 17-year-olds to be tried as juveniles. That change was delayed by lawmakers in the regular session in anticipation of this year’s budget shortfall.
Under Henry’s budget, TOPS scholarships would be funded at 90 percent, which translates to a $29.5 million cut. Recipients of TOPS scholarships would have to cover that portion of tuition out of pocket.
Henry portrayed the Department of Children and Family Services as a winner at Wednesday’s meeting, saying that the food stamps program would be 100 percent funded.
The supplemental budget bill would restore the $34 million in cuts it would sustain if no additional revenue was raised during this special session.
But department officials say that portrayal belies the impact of its struggles with more than decade of budget cuts.
Even with the money restored in the supplementary budget bill and matching federal funds, program officials say chronic underfunding still may force the department to shut down the food stamps program, making Louisiana the only state in the country without those services.
The federal government pays for all of the $1.4 billion in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, commonly referred to as food stamps, distributed in Louisiana each year and matches every dollar the state spends on administrative costs.
Alfreda Tillman Bester, an assistant secretary who oversees the food-stamp program, said that since 2007, her agency has lost 22 percent of the analysts that process claims for assistance and caseloads for the remaining staff have nearly doubled.
And calculations for a standstill budget fail to account for likely increases in contracts with the private companies that receive online applications for assistance, Bester said.
She added that the privately-administered online application program was necessitated by years of budget cuts that forced closures of many parish food-stamps offices, but many elderly or low-income applicants lack the computer literacy or access needed to apply for benefits.
Higher education will be fully funded, but the Appropriations Committee cut $4.5 million in extra money that the Senate had added earlier this month for Southern University in New Orleans and Grambling State University for accreditation and repairs.
The budget would also cut funding by $600,000 for the Department of Agriculture and Forestry and by $500,000 for the Department of Economic Development.