Steep cuts are part of budget maneuvering

BATON ROUGE — Louisiana House leaders have devised a budget-cutting plan that would force steep cuts to health care and colleges, but only as a maneuver to get next year’s more than $24 billion spending proposal past procedural roadblocks from conservative lawmakers.

House Speaker Chuck Kleckley and Appropriations Committee Chairman Jim Fannin say leaders don’t necessarily support the $500 million in cuts to the 2013-14 budget that are being crafted for consideration in Monday’s Appropriations Committee hearing.

The cut plans are part of a shell game designed to win enough votes to move the budget through the House and then to restore money in the Senate, without hitting a two-thirds vote requirement that a bloc of conservative Republicans could use to create a stalemate in the House.

“We’ll send it to Senate, and we’ll work with our Senate colleagues to craft a fiscally responsible budget,” said Kleckley, R-Lake Charles.

At issue is a requirement that two-thirds support of House members is needed to debate and pass a budget proposal that seeks to use patchwork, “one-time” sources of money — from items like property sales and legal settlements — to pay for ongoing programs and services.

A group of House conservatives, nicknamed the “fiscal hawks,” say Gov. Bobby Jindal’s continuing use of the piecemeal financing and lawmakers’ willingness to go along with it have created continuing budget shortfalls year after year when the one-time dollars fall away and the Legislature must scramble to find another way to pay for services.

Two years ago, Rep. Brett Geymann, a fiscal hawk leader, convinced the House to enact a rule that requires any budget proposal that would use one-time money for recurring expenses to require a two-thirds vote for passage and for certain procedural maneuvers used to debate the bill on the House floor.

The Senate doesn’t have a similar requirement.

Geymann, R-Lake Charles, wants the rule that now bears his names — “the Geymann rule” — to force a debate about the types of dollars cobbled together for annual spending plans.

Instead, it’s started a scramble by House leaders to find ways to sidestep the requirements while ultimately using some of the one-time money. Supporters of the financing, including the Jindal administration, say without the patchwork funding, health care services and colleges would face unnecessary and deep reductions.

So, Kleckley and Fannin will seek $500 million in cuts to Jindal’s budget proposal, to get the spending plans through the House and to let senators craft the final budget plans.

“We generally wouldn’t be stripping it out if we didn’t have to comply with the Geymann rule,” said Fannin, D-Jonesboro. “I think the responsible thing to do is get the bill out of committee without the one-time money to meet the Geymann rule and allow all the other folks to participate in the process.”

Geymann said he won’t support a blanket cut that hits health care and higher education without specific, targeted reductions.

“I would rather see us solve the problem and do a well-thought-out amendment,” he said. “Just to move a bill forward, I don’t know that’s necessary. I want to fix the problem.”

It’s unclear, however, whether the fiscal hawks will offer an alternative set of budget cut proposals Monday to get rid of the one-time money. Geymann said they would be working through the weekend on ideas.

Fannin and Kleckely are looking to another section of the Geymann rule to shepherd a budget to final passage.

The rule allows for approval of a budget bill coming back from the Senate with a simple majority vote of the House, if the amount of piecemeal financing included doesn’t exceed the expected growth in state revenue a year later. The provision is designed to keep the state on track to only spend what it is expected to be able to afford in the future.

The House leaders also are trying to run out the clock, hoping that a majority of House lawmakers would choose to support a budget proposal from the Senate before adjournment June 6, rather than risk heading into a special session.

Meanwhile, some Democrats are trying to negotiate with the fiscal hawks on a compromise, to shrink existing tax breaks to drum up new cash. Geymann said he’d be open to consider the tax loophole closures if Democrats are willing to consider cuts as well.

“I think we all need to get out of a comfort zone and get out of the same problems year after year,” Geymann said.

Rep. Walt Leger, D-New Orleans, the No. 2 ranking member of the House, said lawmakers are working on budget proposals for Monday consideration that could tie some budget items to tax break removals.

“Members are talking about how we can look at tax spending to try to find some revenue that makes the job of balancing the budget less painful,” Leger said.

But it seems unlikely the idea could survive Jindal’s line-item veto, because the Republican governor said he won’t support any proposal that raises new tax revenue for the state.

By MELINDA DESLATTE

Associated Press

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