BATON ROUGE — Leaders of Louisiana's medical schools urged state senators today to stall a budget proposal for next year, until lawmakers consider whether to pass taxes to fill a shortfall looming in July.
G.E. Ghali and Larry Hollier, chancellors of the LSU Health Sciences Centers in Shreveport and New Orleans, said the deep cuts proposed in the House version of the budget for the financial year that begins July 1 would ravage graduate medical education.
The full House debates the proposal Thursday.
"We need to stop where we are and hit a reset button. We need to not pass this budget," said Ghali, the Shreveport chancellor.
The chancellors hope lawmakers hold a special session to consider taxes to replace some taxes that expire with the start of the new budget year, to close the $648 million budget gap.
They said if lawmakers pass the budget with the cuts — even if they plan to later add dollars — it would send a signal to faculty and students that the reductions to graduate medical education and the safety-net hospitals in which students train might actually happen.
"If you pass this budget, there's almost a sense of finality," Hollier, the New Orleans chancellor, told the Senate Finance Committee.
Gov. John Bel Edwards' chief budget adviser, Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne, also suggested delaying a decision on spending plans until a special session "might be the best thing to happen."
A special session called by the Democratic governor earlier this year failed to raise any money to close the gap. Edwards wants another special session, but some House Republican leaders are trying to find ways to balance the budget without passing taxes.
The $27 billion operating budget proposal advanced by Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee would slash funding for safety-net hospitals that care for the poor, along with other health programs. Cuts to health spending trigger the loss of matching dollars, deepening reductions. Dardenne said the health cuts would cause the loss of $1.9 billion in federal funds.
GOP House lawmakers prioritized full financing for the TOPS college tuition program over dollars for health services, saying they needed to fulfill promises they made to students. College campuses would take cuts outside of TOPS.
Appropriations Chairman Cameron Henry described the cuts as far less dire than suggested: an 8 percent reduction to health agency spending and a less than 1 percent reduction to higher education.
"We're trying to pass a responsible budget with the dollars we have available," the Metairie Republican said in an online video posted by the House Republican Delegation.
It's unclear if a majority of House members will support a budget with the cuts. Republican House Speaker Taylor Barras said he thinks it's possible.
If the House passes a budget, Senate President John Alario said, "I think we have an obligation to look at it and see if we can massage it to make it a much better bill. I do not like the bill the way it's structured now."
But the Republican Senate leader didn't say whether he thought a budget could pass his chamber during the regular session.
Hollier and Ghali said their schools would get hit twice, from the higher education cuts — but more steeply, from the cuts across safety-net hospitals.
Hospital managers have said the proposed reductions would lead to clinic shutdowns, widespread service eliminations and possible hospital closures. That would give the medical schools fewer places to train students and fewer dollars they get paid for the patient care.
"This would totally implode health care in Louisiana," Ghali said.