Louisiana Politics: State money goes under the microscope

State lawmakers kicked off a new budget process last week that will eventually place hundreds of dedicated funds beneath a legislative microscope.

Some involved with the process believe unlocking Louisiana’s protected funds could make it easier for the Legislature to balance spending and address fiscal emergencies.

It’s a perennial topic at the Capitol; as universities and hospitals have seen their budgets cut, lawmakers have been barred from dipping into a variety of dedicated funds that could have helped ease the pain.

Members of the Dedicated Fund Review Subcommittee will be reviewing around 50 funds at a time in the coming weeks and months, in the hopes of inspiring some legislation for the spring.

There roughly $1.4 billion sitting in special funds that are controlled by the state and also statutorily protected. There’s also another $2.5 billion in a set of constitutionally-protected funds as well.

Sen. Sharon Hewitt, R-Slidell, and Rep. Rick Edmonds, R-Baton Rouge, are serving as co-chairs of the subcommittee, which on an organizational chart would be placed underneath the Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget.

The rest of the subcommittee includes Sens. Conrad Appel, R-Metairie, Norby Chabert, R-Houma, and Francis Thompson, D-Delhi; House Speaker Taylor Barras, R-New Iberia; and Reps. Beryl Amedee, R-Houma, Larry Bagley, R-Stonewall, Lance Harris, R-Alexandria, and Pat Smith, D-Baton Rouge.

Hewitt, who attempted last session to eliminate such funds, said lawmakers will look at each objectively before determining whether they should remain funded. She suspects some of the funds will be “no-brainers to un-dedicate,” while others will be more of a challenge.

The funds to be reviewed are being grouped by department. The Department of Wildlife and Fisheries and the Department of Transportation and Development were up first last week.

“It’s a heavy lift because, of course, for every entity that has a dedicated fund, they are against un-dedicating the money,” she said.

Edmonds added lawmakers will at the very least end up with a better understanding of why certain funds exist.

For now, it appears as if participating lawmakers have little interest in touching high-profile pots of money, like the Transportation Trust Fund and the Minimum Foundation Program. But there’s isn’t a quota or even a goal for how much the subcommittee ultimately wants to tackle.

“We really won’t know what we’re diving into until (later in the process),” Edmonds said.

Hewitt added, “If we don’t make progress on this this year, then I’m going to challenge my colleagues to quit using dedicated funds as an excuse to why we can’t better manage our budget.”

Graves: Cajuns 'endangered'
Earlier this month Congressman Garret Graves, R-Baton Rouge, offered an amendment in the Natural Resources Committee to designate Cajuns as endangered under the Endangered Species Act of 1973.

Why? Because the “federal government has been mismanaging the Mississippi River system for years, and it has caused the greatest coastal wetlands loss on the North American continent,” according to verbiage from Graves’ office.

A video of the exchange shows Graves smiling while making the push.

“If being an endangered species actually affords you additional protections and allows your habitat to be protected and restored, that’s what we want,” Graves told the committee, adding, “I don’t understand how animals get better protection than our people.”

“I understand,” Chairman Rob Bishop of Utah said with a laugh. “You sure you don’t want to call them an invasive species since from they’re from Canada?”

“The Cajun people were thrown out of Nova Scotia,” Graves responded, on the fly, “and came to the United States before Utah became a state.”
Bishop later injected, “If you really cared about them why would you put them under the Endangered Species Act? It doesn’t save anything else.”

Graves, of course, eventually withdrew his amendment from consideration.

Political History: When
majority leader vanished
Last week marked the 45th anniversary of the strange disappearance — and presumed death — of U.S. House Majority Leader Hale Boggs of Louisiana.

Boggs was last seen on Oct. 16, 1972, boarding a twin‐engine Cessna 310 that was making its way from Anchorage to Juneau. He was joined by the pilot, Alaska Congressman Nick Begich and Begich’s aide.

Boggs, for his part, was on his way to speak to a group of Democrats at a fundraising dinner. At the age of 58, he had served 28 years in Congress and was expected to move up to House speaker around the time that his plane disappeared.

The New York Times offered this brief overview of his life the following day: “Mr. Boggs was first elected to Congress in 1941 and, at 26, was the youngest Democrat in the 77th Congress.

"He was defeated for re‐election two years later and joined the Navy, serving for four years. He returned and was elected to the House in 1946. He became the House whip in 1956 and majority leader in 1971.

"Throughout his 14 terms in Congress, Representative Boggs has tended to support liberal domestic legislation and voted for the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a move that did not increase his popularity with some constituents.”

Many forget, but Boggs was also a member of the Warren Commission, which President Lyndon B. Johnson charged to investigate the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

Boggs was still re-elected in the month following his disappearance, even though he was presumed dead.

For more Louisiana political news, visit www.LaPolitics.com or follow Jeremy Alford on Twitter @LaPoliticsNow.

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