BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — The Louisiana House set the stage Tuesday for negotiations with the Senate on next year's $25 billion budget, and House leaders made their pitch to senators for a possible compromise in the final days of the legislative session.
In a procedural move, the House unanimously rejected the Senate's version of the spending plans and sent a package of bills to a legislative conference committee to work out a final deal for the fiscal year that begins July 1.
Lawmakers say they hope to reach an agreement before the regular session ends Thursday and keep themselves out of a special session. Any compromise will be devised behind the scenes among legislative leaders.
Republican and Democratic leaders in the House said they offered a proposal to senators that included some ideas for places to compromise.
"We had a meeting, and the House set forth its demands, and the Senate very politely and seeming attentively accepted them — and left without committing to anything," said Rep. John Bel Edwards, D-Amite, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus.
Rep. Joel Robideaux, R-Lafayette, a chief budget negotiator in the House, described the meeting as a "good starting point," as lawmakers suggested they were more optimistic than in previous days that they could avoid a special session to complete work on the budget.
Senate President John Alario, R-Westwego, said senators were combing through the House proposal and thought there was room to compromise. After a grim expectation a day earlier that lawmakers would be forced into a special session, Alario was hopeful Tuesday.
"I feel much, much better today than I did yesterday. I was really, really down. But I'm thinking reasonable minds can make this work if we both give a little something," he said.
Among the many points of contention, House Democrats are unhappy that dollars for the public school funding formula remain flat in the Senate version of the budget, while spending grows on the state's voucher program that sends students to private schools.
Senators added a one-time $50 million public school teacher bonus to lessen complaints about vouchers. House Democrats instead want that to be a $68 million, recurring 2.75 percent increase to public school district funding, with half used for permanent teacher pay raises.
That is "a big hang-up for a lot of people. We're trying to figure that out," Alario said.
House Republicans disagree with the level of one-time dollars from items such as land sales and legal settlements that are slated to pay for continuing programs in the Senate budget. They blame the use of such funding for repeated cycles of budget shortfalls.
Conservative Republican representatives also don't like changes the Senate made to a House bill seeking to limit the use of one-time money for ongoing expenses in later years. The Senate lessened the scope of the proposal.
An unusual alliance between conservative House Republicans, the black caucus and the Democratic caucus crafted the budget that the House sent to the Senate before it was heavily rewritten. Representatives of those groups said they intend to stick together to work out a final deal with the Senate.
"It's been made very clear that the relationships that have been forged in the House are not something that we're just going to throw away," Robideaux said.
"It's all solid," he said. "The reason we're at the table is because we all stuck together, and I don't intend to break that apart."
While they remain in negotiations for next year's state operating budget, the House did give final passage Tuesday to a standstill, $93 million budget to finance the operations of legislative agencies in the fiscal year that begins July 1. The proposal goes to the governor's desk with a 98-1 vote.