Jindal’s budget plan questioned

Advocate staff photo by PATRICK DENNIS State Rep. John Schroder, R-Covington, right, chats with House Appropriations Committee chairman Jim Fannin, D-Jonesboro, left, during budget hearings Tuesday.
Advocate staff photo by PATRICK DENNIS State Rep. John Schroder, R-Covington, right, chats with House Appropriations Committee chairman Jim Fannin, D-Jonesboro, left, during budget hearings Tuesday.

Legislators began looking at the guts of Gov. Bobby Jindal’s $24.7 billion state budget proposal Tuesday.

Debate at a meeting of the House Appropriations Committee focused on how the governor wants to balance a budget that will fund schools, prisons and other public expenses in the fiscal year that starts July 1.

With the state facing a $1.3 billion shortfall in the amount of money needed to keep state government services at their current level, the governor wants to sell property, take $100 million from the New Orleans convention center and withdraw cash from dedicated funds.

An overview of the patchwork approach to the budget resulted in committee members punching their buttons to address the Jindal administration. One Republican likened the governor’s proposed budget to a shell game.

“I have a lot of lights on,” said the committee’s chairman, state Rep. Jim Fannin, D-Jonesboro.

State Rep. Patricia Smith, D-Baton Rouge, questioned when the state will receive the $47 million anticipated from property sales, including $10 million for a downtown Baton Rouge office building and $4.8 million from the sale of a lot next to the State Capitol.

Commissioner of Administration Kristy Nichols, the governor’s chief budget aide, said the money will be in hand by the end of the fiscal year.

“These are contingencies,” Smith said.

Nichols refused to agree, characterizing the properties as assets that are for sale and that were very carefully put into the proposed budget.

She said many parties are interested in the downtown Baton Rouge office building. On the other real estate in the state’s portfolio, active negotiations are proceeding on a vacant tract of land in Carville and a buyer already is in place for Wooddale Towers, an unoccupied office building in Baton Rouge, Nichols said.

Some lawmakers have said that, in a break with tradition, they plan to offer alternatives to large parts of the governor’s budget proposal during the 2013 regular legislative session, which begins on April 8.

Smith said her main concern is the lot next to the State Capitol. The land used to be home to the state Department of Insurance and now holds a parking garage used by state government workers and the media. She said Spanish Town residents are worried about the lot’s future.

Nichols said she intends to work with legislators and residents on how the property will be utilized. One idea, she said, is for the Legislative Auditor’s Office to buy the property for an eventual building.

“Selling property just doesn’t set well with me, personally,” said state Rep. Johnny Berthelot, R-Gonzales.

Like Smith, Berthelot said he cannot believe the state would sell a corner lot in the shadow of the State Capitol. The property in question is sandwiched between Spanish Town and the State Capitol complex.

The governor’s plans to take $100 million from the New Orleans convention center’s reserves also sparked several questions.

State Rep. Helena Moreno, D-New Orleans, said there is a concern that the convention center will simply lose that money.

Nichols said the $100 million will be used to protect higher education and health care. She said state construction dollars will be invested into New Orleans to repay what is taken from the center’s reserves.

State Rep. Bob Hensgens, R-Abbeville, asked if the Jindal administration next will take levee boards’ money.

Also ripe for debate was money the governor wants to take from funds scattered across state government. Money would be taken from funds set up to help indigent pet owners, traumatic head injury patients and others.

Why, state Rep. Jim Morris asked, would the administration want to take more than $1 million from the concealed handgun permit fund, which uses fees from applicants for the administration of the permit process.

Morris, R-Oil City, said he has received numerous calls complaining about the slow pace of the permit process. He suggested the money could be left in the fund and used to beef up the permit process.

Nichols countered that a health care service would have to be cut.

State Rep. John Schroder, R-Covington, told the Jindal administration that he is frustrated with hearing that higher education or health care will be hurt if anything is changed.

He said legislators are breaking a promise when constituents are asked to dedicate dollars and then that dedication is not made.

“I don’t know why anyone would vote to dedicate a single nickel,” Schroder said.

He accused the administration of playing a shell game.