Political Horizons: Budget center of attention

by michelle millhollon

Capitol news bureau

Louisiana House Speaker Chuck Kleckley compares the state operating budget to an old car with faulty brakes, an oil leak and a mound of other needed repairs.

“We’re all in agreement that we need to reform the budget,” the Lake Charles Republican said during an informal luncheon with State Capitol reporters Wednesday.

Certainly, more and more issues are surfacing with the approach of the 2013 Regular Legislative Session, especially given the fact that the governor made yet another round of midyear budget cuts mere months ago.

Many legislators and higher education officials want a different approach to building a budget that funds colleges, hospitals and other public services.

Gov. Bobby Jindal presented a $24.7 billion proposed state operating budget in February that relies on expected property sales, pending legal settlements and money transfers to ensure that public colleges and universities continue to operate in the fiscal year that starts July 1.

The budget bill’s sponsor, state Rep. Jim Fannin, asked state Commissioner of Higher Education Jim Purcell if he had enough cash flow to make it through a recent budget meeting. Fannin, D-Jonesboro, was probably speaking only half in jest.

The governor faces budget battles on at least three fronts.

Members of the state Board of Regents are unhappy with the governor’s patchwork approach to higher education’s budget. They want a more-certain means of funding.

A faction of House Republicans who temporarily stalled the budget debate last year are back again, this time armed with legislative proposals that aim to shake up the budget process.

Also on a possible collision course with the governor’s budget is a lawsuit filed by two Republicans.

State Reps. Kirk Talbot, R-River Ridge, and Cameron Henry, R-New Orleans, already were suing the state of Louisiana over the current year’s $25 billion budget. They wanted a judge to declare the spending plan unconstitutional because of the budget’s apparent reliance on uncertain money. Now they want the judge to also look at next year’s budget.

“After looking at the administration’s budget for the upcoming fiscal year, it is clear that it contains the same constitutional issues as the current fiscal year budget,” Talbot said.

With the session starting Monday amid unresolved issues, Kleckley said the challenge will be to emerge with a budget that keeps state government running.

“We know it’s got an oil leak,” he said. “We’ve got to get it from point A to point B.”

State Rep. Joel Robideaux, who is sponsoring the governor’s tax package, said he expects budget reform to be the other big issue of the legislative session.

Robideaux, R-Lafayette, said a movement is brewing in the Louisiana House to make changes.

One of the biggest sticking points, he said, is the governor’s push to gather up dollars from property that hasn’t been sold and legal disputes that haven’t been settled to fund higher education.

“It’s one thing to know the cuts are going to fall on you, but it’s more disconcerting to know you’re relying on numbers that may or may not come to pass,” Robideaux said.

State Rep. Brett Geymann, R-Lake Charles, spent the roughly 11 months between legislative sessions traveling the state talking to stakeholder groups, former legislators and budget experts about how state government manages its money.

Roughly 30 House members, including some Democrats, are aligned with Geymann on making changes.

He said there are three overarching goals: Changing the way the budget moves through the Legislature to create bigger windows of time for debate; making it clear what is nondiscretionary and what is discretionary in the budget; and clarifying that all dollars used in the budget should be officially recognized by the group that is supposed to have the final say on what state government has to spend.

Geymann said his group’s aim is not to simply take a sledgehammer to the state budget. A recent public opinion poll indicated that many voters are tired of budget cuts after back-to-back years of them. With the state now slicing dollars from battered women’s shelters and Medicaid programs, the public has had enough.

“It’s about making the budget constitutional and more stable,” Geymann said. “We want the numbers to be real so we don’t have midyear cuts.”

Michelle Millhollon covers the state budget for The Advocate’s Capitol news bureau. Her email address is mmillhollon@theadvocate.com.