The session would be held in the state capitol, in Baton Rouge. Photo: Katedahl, Creative Commons

A legislative bid to reverse Gov. Bobby Jindal’s cuts in health care services for the poor and uninsured seems likely to fail.

In a survey by The Lens state legislators from Orleans, Jefferson and St. Tammany parishes expressed doubt that the political will exists to call the Legislature into special session next month to restore cuts to Louisiana State University’s hospitals in New Orleans, Mandeville, Lafayette, Bogalusa, Lake Charles, Houma and Baton Rouge.

Even if they agree to call the special session, lawmakers said Jindal would veto any measure to restore the cuts. It would take a two-thirds vote in both chambers to override him.

“The politically correct thing would be to beat my chest and complain, but nothing will get done,” said state Sen. Danny Martiny, R-Kenner, who is undecided on whether to go the special-session route. “It’s senseless to go into special session and have him override us.”

Senate President John Alario, R-Westwego, and House Speaker Chuck Kleckley, R-Lake Charles, are opposed to holding the special session. The Democratic Legislative Black Caucus, which includes 32 of the 144 state lawmakers, has not taken a position, said State. Rep. Patricia Haynes Smith, the caucus chair and a Democrat from Baton Rouge. So is the all-Democratic Legislative Black Caucus, which includes 32 of the 144 state lawmakers.

Correction: This post originally misstated the position of the Democratic Legislative Black Caucus.

State Rep. Jerome “Dee” Richard, an independent from Thibodaux, has taken the lead in challenging Jindal’s hospital budget cuts.

Richard’s first step toward a special session is a petition drive. If enough House and Senate members sign on—at least one-third, or 35, House members and one-third, or 13, senators—the second step would be asking lawmakers to convoke the session.

It would take a majority in both chambers to call the special session.

“It will be an uphill battle,” Richard said.

If legislators do go into special session, it would take a majority vote in each chamber to restore the budget cuts and then the two-thirds vote to override a veto.

At issue are Jindal-mandated cuts of more than $475 million to the LSU hospital system that would force the poor and uninsured to seek medical and psychiatric care in private hospitals. The cuts would eliminate about 1,500 LSU hospital jobs.

Public attention locally has focused on Jindal’s plan to close Southeast Louisiana Hospital in Mandeville, but the repercussions of the cuts are wider than that.

The Interim Hospital in New Orleans, for example, would lose about 50 of its 201 beds.

State legislators from St. Tammany Parish—most of them Republicans—met Thursday afternoon with officials from the state Department of Health and Hospitals to discuss the cuts.

“They’re looking for a private provider to retain as many of the services and employees as possible,” said state Rep. Tim Burns, R-Mandeville. The private hospitals would want the state to reimburse them.

Asked how the state would save money by shifting the services, Burns replied, “Good question.”

Burns, who said he hasn’t decided whether to sign the petition, added that the St. Tammany lawmakers requested a meeting with Jindal but were rebuffed. Jindal was in Virginia on Wednesday campaigning for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, the latest of his frequent out-of-state campaign trips.

“The governor is busy gallivanting around the country,” said state Rep. Austin Badon Jr., D-New Orleans, who plans to sign the petition. “He needs to be here and address our needs.”

Richard hopes to hold a 15-day special session beginning on Nov. 26. Besides restoring the cuts, he also wants the Legislature to pass legislation preventing the governor from making deep cuts to medical services without lawmakers’ approval. Richard has until about Oct. 25 to collect the necessary signatures.

Richard’s effort to call the special session is symptomatic of the Legislature’s growing unease with Jindal’s unilateral tactics.

Republicans and Democrats alike in the Orleans, Jefferson and St. Tammany delegations complained that Jindal imposed the budget cuts without consulting legislators first.

“We haven’t been provided any information,” said state Rep. Cameron Henry, R-Metairie, who has signed the petition. “We need to have information to take back to our districts.”

Rep. Jerry “Truck” Gisclair, D-Larose, another petition signer, was more harsh. “The governor is out of control and needs to be reeled back in,” Gisclair said. “He’s doing whatever he wants when it comes to prisons and hospitals.”

Jindal administration officials have said Congress left them with no alternative to the cuts after refusing to provide $859 million to reimburse the state for federal Medicaid funding. The Legislature did not create a contingency fund in case Congress didn’t provide the money.

Congress made its decision after the Legislature ended its session in June. So the Jindal administration exercised its authority to impose the cuts. Previous governors typically consulted legislators before making such moves.

The budget cuts are in line with the view of a Republican governor and Republican-majority Legislature that less government is a good thing. Jindal has opposed any tax increases to pay for government spending—even a three-cent-per-pack renewal of a cigarette tax. The Republicans’ view made automatic both the cuts and Congress’ refusal to fork over the $859 million in Medicaid reimbursements. Louisiana is legally required to balance its budget.

Some Republicans welcome the cuts, painful as they may be.

“We need to change the system of health-care delivery,” said state Rep. Tony Ligi, R-Metairie, in explaining why he won’t sign Richard’s petition.

One of the obstacles facing Richard and his supporters is that they cannot explain what cuts they would make elsewhere in the state budget to offset restoring the LSU hospital funding. Their options are limited. Most of the state budget goes for medical care, education and prisons.

“I’m afraid we’d end up with worse cuts,” said state Rep. Helena Moreno, D-New Orleans, in explaining why she won’t sign Richard’s petition.

Richard said that once the Jindal administration explains the exact amount of the LSU cuts, he would propose how to pay for restoring the money.

“No one is telling us anything,” Richard said.

State Sen. J.P. Morrell, D-New Orleans, said he opposes the special session because restoring the cuts would only mean cuts elsewhere. He also expressed concern about a special session’s cost.

In the House the bill comes to between $30,000 and $35,000 per day, said House Clerk Alfred “Butch” Speer, mostly to give lawmakers their $149 per diem and cover the costs of travel, staff overtime and printing. At that rate, a 15-day session would cost about $500,000 for the House.  A staffer for Senate Secretary Glenn Koepp said the special session would cost the Senate about $25,000 per day, or about $375,000 for 15 days.

It’s also possible that the special session would not cost taxpayers anything if they don’t specifically appropriate money to pay for it. If so, the House and Senate would simply absorb the cost out of their current fiscal-year budget. The House budget is $27 million. The Senate budget is $20 million.

Tyler Bridges

Tyler Bridges covers Louisiana politics and public policy for The Lens. He returned to New Orleans in 2012 after spending the previous year as a Nieman Fellow at Harvard, where he studied digital journalism....