Budget debate rescheduled

Advocate staff photo by RICHARD ALAN HANNON -- State Rep. Kirk Talbot, R-River Ridge, left, speaks Wednesday with state Rep. Brett Geymann, R-Lake Charles, on the House floor. They are so-called
Advocate staff photo by RICHARD ALAN HANNON -- State Rep. Kirk Talbot, R-River Ridge, left, speaks Wednesday with state Rep. Brett Geymann, R-Lake Charles, on the House floor. They are so-called "fiscal hawks" who have proposed an alternative budget bill for state spending.

House Speaker Chuck Kleckley rescheduled floor debate on the state budget Wednesday as legislators tried to resolve differences on an alternative to Gov. Bobby Jindal’s proposed $24.7 billion state spending plan.

Legislators were supposed to debate House Bill 1, the main budget legislation, on Thursday. Now, they will report to the State Capitol on Friday — a day on which they normally take a break from legislative work.

They will tackle minor budget bills Thursday and amend whatever alternative plan emerges into legislation.

Kleckley, R-Lake Charles, made the announcement at the end of the Louisiana House’s business day, updating legislators as they packed up laptops and tidied their desks.

Republicans retreated to a meeting room in the bowels of the State Capitol to continue debate on balancing the state budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1 without relying on one-time dollars. Democrats, who appear to be more solidly behind the alternative plan, planned to meet Thursday morning.

“We’re very close to being ready, we think, but it’s just an awful lot of work,” state Rep. Brett Geymann, R-Lake Charles, said as the Louisiana House worked on nonbudget bills earlier in the day.

After meeting with some House Republicans on Wednesday night, Geymann said he was optimistic about succeeding with an alternative plan.

Republicans and Democrats in the House are trying to strike a bipartisan compromise that eliminates the governor’s approach of using property sales, legal settlements, a refinancing and other nonrecurring dollars to balance the state budget. The governor wants to spend the money on higher education.

An alternative budget plan circulated earlier in the week that would make more than $100 million in spending cuts and reduce many tax breaks by 15 percent for several years. A sales tax exemption on business utilities and manufacturing machinery and equipment purchases would partially disappear in order to generate $143 million for state government.

The state sales tax exemptions benefit farmers and refineries. Many legislators are unhappy with the prospect of reducing them.

State Rep. Robert Johnson, D-Marksville, said he is fine with the alternative plan as long as a remedy can be found for the farmers.

“I’m not saying I love it 100 percent,” he said. “But it’s a very, very, very intelligent solution.”

A faction of House Republicans known as the fiscal hawks long have disagreed with Jindal using one-time dollars for expenses that must be paid year after year. After Jindal socked all of the one-time money into higher education in the current proposal, Democrats joined the cause.

The governor and business groups hit back, arguing that decreasing tax breaks amounts to tax increases. Their argument has weakened some Republicans’ resolve about producing an alternative budget.

“This is hard. There’s nothing easy about this. You can’t put these things together on a dime,” said House Democratic leader John Bel Edwards, of Amite.

State Rep. Joel Robideaux, R-Lafayette, said legislators need to find that spot where enough folks are comfortable. “We’re still working,” he said.