State budget bill hearing Monday

Nearly $500 million likely will melt away when legislators start making changes to the proposed state spending plan Monday.

At 9 a.m., the Louisiana House Appropriations Committee will start tackling the $24.7 billion state operating budget that Gov. Bobby Jindal presented for the fiscal year that starts July 1.

The committee will make changes after weeks of testimony that raised concerns about the amount of one-time, or nonrecurring, money piled into the budget and about unmet needs such as consistent funding for battered women shelters. The action will start the bill’s movement through the Legislature. However, it also is likely to trigger discontent.

Some changes are certain to please both legislators and the public. The Jindal administration, for example, agreed last week to rethink planned cuts to battered women’s shelters, cancer screenings and a program that helps senior citizens find free or discount prescriptions.

“We were able to identify responsible solutions and propose restoring the funding while maintaining a balanced budget,” Commissioner of Administration Kristy Nichols said in a prepared statement.

In a more controversial move, legislators are expected to purge roughly $500 million in one-time dollars from the state budget just to move the bill through the House and then allow the Senate to make repairs that prevent heavy cuts to higher education and health care. The move would detour the bill from the collision course it currently is on with a House rule that makes it difficult to use one-time money as patches in the state spending plan. The backers of that rule are unhappy about the alternate route.

“I don’t think the public wants us to just move the instrument. I think the public wants us to do the work,” said state Rep. Brett Geymann.

Geymann, R-Lake Charles, sponsored the rule that House leaders characterized as problematic. He also leads a faction of House Republicans called the fiscal hawks. The hawks want to end a patchwork approach to the state budget that relies on property sales and legal settlements to pay expenses that must be met year after year.

Jindal once compared using one-time money for recurring expenses to using a credit care to pay the mortgage. At the time, state government was flush with money.

Five years later, the governor wants to sell property, refinance tobacco settlement bonds and take money from the New Orleans convention center to balance next year’s state operating budget.

“When you don’t have enough new revenue, it’s hard to please everyone,” House Appropriations Committee Chairman Jim Fannin, D-Jonesboro, said ahead of the panel’s action.

Jindal said early last week that he is open to listening to members’ ideas. “Our budget is not etched in stone,” he said.

Last year, budget debate in the House stalled for two days over the use of one-time money. This year, House leaders want to prevent a second stalemate.

The budget starts in the House, moves to the Senate and then returns to the House for concurrence on any changes.

The Geymann rules requires a two-thirds vote before the House can consider the budget if it contains one-time money. A ceiling on one-time money comes into play once the bill leaves the House. If the budget returns to the House from the Senate with more than roughly $200 million in one-time money, another two-thirds vote is needed.

Fannin said the best management of time would be to take out the one-time money in his appropriations committee. The session ends in early June.

“In order to meet the Geymann rule, the money has to come out,” Fannin said. “That’s the House rule. The committee didn’t make that rule, but the body made that rule.”

House Speaker Chuck Kleckley, R-Lake Charles, said he will work with Senate Finance Chairman Jack Donahue to reinsert the one-time funding on the state Senate side.

“We’ll work with our Senate colleagues to craft a fiscally responsible budget,” Kleckley said.

The fiscal hawks aren’t happy with that game plan. They argue the move would put higher education and health care — the two areas of the budget most vulnerable to reductions — in a precarious position.

State Rep. Cameron Henry, R-New Orleans, and Geymann called for Fannin to summon agency heads for an explanation on how purging the one-time money would impact public services.

“You don’t pass legislation on the hopes someone else fixes it,” Henry said.

Donahue, R-Mandeville, said he wants to see what the House ultimately sends his committee. However, he said he would not be happy with keeping intact nearly $500 million in budget cuts.

Geymann said he plans to work through the weekend on a solution.

House Democratic leader John Bel Edwards, of Amite, said legislative independence would be nice. But Edwards predicted the Legislature will end up with the budget that the governor fashioned.

He said the governor’s approach is irresponsible because it depends on dollars that are not in hand, such as money from property sales and legal settlements.

“I’m just very, very frustrated. There’s no doubt in my mind we’re going to end up with mid-year budget cuts again, and nothing’s going to change,” Edwards said.