White: Budget too low

Published 7:32 am Wednesday, June 22, 2016

State Rep. Malinda White said the budget bill that passed the House on Monday didn’t fully fund the public/private hospitals in the state, but it came close and the fight is not over yet.

Monday’s House vote added $284 million back into the state budget. That funding will go toward education and healthcare. While it meets the governor’s request for the public/private hospitals, it does not meet the request of hospital administrators. In addition, Edwards had requested a total of $600 million in additional funding, so the House’s bill falls short of that by about half.

Hospital administrators had requested $85 million for their hospitals and the House passed a bill that provided the hospitals $65 million. This included a $15-million cut from TOPS, the college scholarship program. That money instead went to the safety net hospitals.

The state’s nine safety net hospitals, which includes Bogalusa’s Our Lady of the Angels, serve mainly low-income areas. While White said nobody wanted to cut TOPS, she argued to lawmakers that hospitals are more important than education, especially in areas like Bogalusa that only have one hospital.

“In our district specifically, if a child were in an accident in our parish and our acute care hospital would walk away from our contract, then we wouldn’t throw a thousand dollar bill at them and say, ‘good luck in college,’ with the nearest hospital being an hour or an hour-and-a-half away,” she said.

White said Our Lady of the Angels is struggling as it is, so any cuts will hurt.

“As far as the Angels hospital goes, they already took a loss last year,” she said. “They’re at break-even or will take a loss this year, with the current funding they get.”

Rene Ragas, the hospital’s CEO, has been in talks with leadership from Franklinton’s hospital about combining certain services to cut costs, though no final plans have been unveiled and they likely won’t be until the budget is hammered out.

However, White said Our Lady of the Angels could simply leave if the hospital can’t afford to operate here.

“I can say that I believe they will hopefully remain with us, but I will tell you with the current contract they can walk away with a 60-day notice,” she said.

The House must now get its bill reconciled with the Senate, and that process could bump up some revenue. The House would then have to approve that reconciled bill.

The special session will end at midnight on Thursday and White said she expects the final budget to be decided by then.

“You can count on something happening in the 11th hour from my experience in the first special session,” she said. “It wouldn’t surprise me a bit if we were voting on something at 11:59.”

So far, the governor has said he will not call a third special session. If that is true, then this week — the longest legislative term in recent memory — could be the final chapter in a tough fight over limited dollars.

White said she’s not had an easy first session.

“As a freshman (legislator) going into this, I can truthfully say I have tried every way to fund our critical care, our TOPS, our higher education with every vote and every bill I’ve carried with attempts to try and spread the pain, the taxes, equally, to share those from the poorest of the poor to the wealthiest of the wealthiest,” she said. “There’s no one who is untouched from the revenues we’ve had to increase.”

Editor’s note: In the June 18-19, weekend edition story on the Senate’s finance bill, we incorrectly reported that the Senate passed a spending bill of $30 to $40 million. The correct number was $300 to $400 million. The Daily News regrets the error.