La. agencies release details of budget cuts

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BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Prisons are replacing guards with security cameras and cutting down on hot meals for inmates, the state’s economic development arm is giving out fewer grants and the wildlife and fisheries department is paring back its aquatic weed control program.

Gov. Bobby Jindal ordered most Louisiana agencies to slash their spending to help rebalance the $29 billion state budget and close a $248 million deficit in the fiscal year that ends June 30. Other departments have their own internal budget shortfalls to close as their spending was on track to exceed the dollars set aside for them this year.

Budget-cutting plans from each agency are due to the governor’s fiscal office Friday. Many have already been submitted. Public colleges, facing one of the largest cuts, expect to wait until the deadline to release final details. Statewide elected officials and the education department also have yet to announce their cuts.

“We had to lay off 25 people last year, and we can’t take anymore,” Attorney General Buddy Caldwell said. “We’re not sure of the total impact of this cut. We’re doing all we can internally to conform and modify our existing programs and services to prevent layoffs.”

Departments are cutting contracts, shrinking travel and eliminating vacant jobs to reduce costs without much visible effect. In some instances, they are using available federal dollars and savings from a partial state government hiring freeze to fill gaps without making cuts. But some agencies also are laying off workers.

The state health department, which takes the biggest hit in the governor’s budget cut plans, is giving pink slips to 445 employees as it shrinks it budget by $108 million and copes with a deficit in the state Medicaid program. Twenty-four workers at the social services department will be laid off.

Every department received either a 7.6 percent cut to its state general fund appropriation or a 3 percent cut of its total budget, whichever was less, under the governor’s executive order to rebalance the budget, which was issued Dec. 22.

Three departments — the corrections, juvenile justice and military agencies — didn’t get budget cuts in Jindal’s executive order. But those departments already faced their own shortfalls, and they have to make cuts to close their internal budget gaps.

To trim their budgets, the transportation department is cutting spending on some of its road projects, spending on a rural water contract is being reduced at the Department of Environmental Quality and the state’s homeland security agency is using state-owned fuel depots and maintenance garages rather than private facilities.

The Department of Social Services is eliminating a child care aid program for people looking for work and is shrinking assistance and laying off workers at the Louisiana Rehabilitation Services agency, which helps disabled Louisiana residents find jobs.

The Department of Economic Development is leveling its entire reduction, $1.7 million, on a grant program that gives aid to business expansion projects. Economic Development Secretary Stephen Moret said the program needs fewer funds than originally expected for projects.

Developmentally disabled residents at state-run group homes are being moved to cheaper, privately run facilities that offer the same services, and the Department of Health and Hospitals will lay off workers at the state-run sites.

Louisiana’s prisons are increasing their use of technology: substituting cameras for guards in watchtowers and expanding video court proceedings so inmates don’t have to leave prison. Prison menus are being standardized so the Department of Corrections can purchase food in bulk, and inmates who got three hot meals a day now can expect a sack lunch for one of those meals.

“We want to assure citizens that the department is identifying efficiencies while continuing to protect our core mission of providing critical public safety services for the people of Louisiana,” said Corrections Secretary Jimmy LeBlanc.