Louisiana House members seek budget reforms
BATON ROUGE — Conservative House lawmakers said Tuesday they will push a package of proposals that aim to expand the areas of the state budget that can be cut during shortfalls and to limit the use of patchwork funding for ongoing programs.
Rep. Brett Geymann, a Republican leading the “Budget Reform Coalition,” outlined the basic concepts to a Baton Rouge-based business organization. The bills will be unveiled next week, to be considered in the legislative session that begins in April.
The group, which has about 30 members, has been regularly at odds with GOP Gov. Bobby Jindal over budgeting tactics. The lawmakers say the financing methods used by the Jindal administration — and governors before him — create repeated budget shortfalls and instability for programs and agencies, by using gimmicks to pay for services.
“This is an institutional problem that has been happening in Louisiana forever,” Rep. Lance Harris, R-Alexandria, told the Chamber of Commerce of East Baton Rouge Parish, a right-leaning organization of small business owners.
While other states have seen financial rebounds and increased funding since the recession ended, Louisiana has seen repeated shortfalls and deficits, with Jindal making the latest round of cuts just last month to rebalance the budget.
The conservative House members blame many of the continued reductions on the structure of the state’s budget, but they have been unsuccessful in making changes as the budget moves through the legislative session.
Geymann, R-Lake Charles, said the package of bills will focus on changing the process for handling the budget, to include more people in crafting the spending plans upfront.
He said the legislation also will seek to expand places where spending can be reduced, so colleges and health care don’t take the bulk of the slashing when budget gaps appear. Jindal proposed something similar during his first term, but the idea got little support from lawmakers at the time.
The state has a more than $25 billion budget for the current fiscal year, but much of that is federal funding or sources of protected pots of money for certain state agencies.
Of the more than $8 billion in general state tax revenue that flows to the state, lawmakers only can determine how to spend $2.4 billion after all constitutional, statutory and legal requirements for funding are met, said Rep. Cameron Henry, R-Metairie.
Henry said the Budget Reform Coalition wants to unlock some of the pools of money dedicated in state law to specific programs, so that the dollars can be spent to help stave off continued cuts to health care programs and higher education.
“We believe, under certain situations, we ought to open up the statutorily dedicated funds and put them on the table,” Geymann said.
Geymann and Henry said the state’s chronic budget shortfalls and repeated midyear cuts are worsened by the piecemeal financing that the Jindal administration has used to cobble together budget plans. When the dollars fall away each year, a new hole is created.
Jindal and his advisers have said that without using the dollars — like money from property sales, legal settlements and other one-time sources — spending on health care and higher education would have to be cut even further.
Henry has filed a lawsuit challenging the governor’s use of one-time money for ongoing expenses and other budgeting maneuvers, calling them unconstitutional.
By MELINDA DESLATTE