Lawmakers open hearings on $25B state budget
BATON ROUGE (AP) — Lawmakers who began unraveling the details Tuesday of Gov. Bobby Jindal’s $25 billion budget proposal learned they have more shortfalls to address this year before they piece together next year’s spending plans.
Up to $87 million in gaps exist in health care, education, prison and other state programs for the budget year that ends June 30, Sherry Phillips-Hymel, the Senate’s chief budget analyst, told the Senate Finance Committee.
“There’s still a lot of things that we need to look at in the next four months,” of the 2013-14 fiscal year, she said.
Among the items on the list, the governor and lawmakers didn’t set aside enough money for the public school funding formula, the state Medicaid program and sheriffs who house state inmates in their local jails, Phillips-Hymel said.
In addition, the corrections department is saving $5 million less than expected from a new law that allows nonviolent drug offenders to leave prison early and others to avoid jail if they complete a drug treatment program.
Similar types of budget gaps appear each year. Jindal’s top budget adviser, Commissioner of Administration Kristy Nichols, said such supplemental needs are common and the budget would be rebalanced as required by the constitution.
Lawmakers will consider ways to close the shortfalls in this year’s budget in coordination with their work on next year’s spending plans, in the three-month legislative session that opened Monday.
The House Appropriations Committee began combing through Jindal’s spending recommendations for the new fiscal year that begins July 1, starting an agency-by-agency review of the proposal.
The Republican governor suggests new education and health care spending, pay raises for state workers and an incentive fund to encourage colleges to enhance their science, engineering and technology training.
Reps. Roy Burrell, D-Shreveport, and Patricia Smith, D-Baton Rouge, said they worried the governor’s budget offers too little needs-based aid for college students. Burrell also questioned if the proposal includes enough money for LSU’s medical school in Shreveport.
Rep. Simone Champagne, R-Erath, asked for more details about ongoing plans to spend $1.5 billion in federal hurricane recovery funding available to the state.
Others asked about Jindal’s proposal to consolidate computer maintenance work across most state agencies and his assumption that it would save at least $23 million.
Meanwhile, the Senate Finance Committee got a crash course in how Jindal proposes steering $450 million in surplus cash and piecemeal funding to help pay for next year’s ongoing expenses.
To balance next year’s budget, Jindal used tactics that meet restrictions on the one-time funds, but that some lawmakers criticize as gimmicks that will keep the state facing annual budget shortfalls when the sources of financing don’t reappear annually.
For example, Jindal proposes to pre-pay $210 million in debt with the patchwork funding, which frees up the same amount of state general fund money to spend on operating expenses. He also proposes the state take $50 million in cash from the New Orleans convention center and replace it with long-term borrowing paid off with interest.
“Everything that is being proposed is completely allowable by law and by constitution,” Phillips-Hymel said.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Jack Donahue, R-Mandeville, set up the problem lawmakers face each year: if they want to remove the piecemeal funding, they’ll have to decide where to make cuts.
“That’s what this committee wrestles with,” he said.
Lawmakers likely will work on the budget until the final days of session, which must end by June 2.