Lawmakers tout alternative budget plan

Advocate staff photo by RICHARD ALAN HANNON -- State Rep. Joel Robideaux, R-Lafayette, center, receives a round of applause Thursday from fellow House members, Republican and Democratic, as walks up to the microphones during a press conference about the state budget on the steps of the State Capitol.
Advocate staff photo by RICHARD ALAN HANNON -- State Rep. Joel Robideaux, R-Lafayette, center, receives a round of applause Thursday from fellow House members, Republican and Democratic, as walks up to the microphones during a press conference about the state budget on the steps of the State Capitol.

House Republicans and Democrats celebrated on the State Capitol steps Thursday after devising a new alternative to Gov. Bobby Jindal’s proposed $24.7 billion state spending plan.

The plan’s true test comes Friday, when the House tackles a state budget that funds health care, higher education and other public expenses.

Two ideas are at play. The governor’s approach heavily relies on property sales, legal settlements and other one-time dollars to fund the state’s public colleges and universities. The alternative approach purges those dollars and replaces them with spending cuts, a tax amnesty program, an emphasis on consumers paying taxes on Internet sales and other measures.

“Bring your toothpaste and pajamas,” House Speaker Chuck Kleckley joked to members as they packed their bags and headed home to rest for the long Friday ahead.

Afterward, Kleckley, R-Lake Charles, said he is confident the alternative plan has enough support to advance from the House to the state Senate.

For two days in a row, Jindal lined up industry leaders and lobbyists to stand behind him in his formal news conference room to denounce an earlier version of the plan that included largely across-the-board reductions to tax breaks. On Thursday, he held a more casual gathering for the news media in his private office and said he is “encouraged” by changes to the alternative plan.

The governor still cited concerns about parts of the plan, especially modifications to motion picture and job creation tax credits and tweaks to a vendor’s compensation program. “Let’s see what emerges from the process,” Jindal said, declining to comment on whether he will work with the Senate to unravel any of the changes.

The bipartisan plan’s roots are in largely philosophical grumblings by a faction of House Republicans known as the fiscal hawks. The hawks — led by state Rep. Brett Geymann — differed with the governor on using one-time dollars for expenses that must be met year after year.

After a heavy cut by Congress to Medicaid dollars received in Louisiana, Jindal proposed a budget that would put roughly $500 million in one-time dollars into higher education for the fiscal year that starts July 1.

The proposal brought Republicans and Democrats together to devise an alternative.

A version floated earlier this week seemed to sink almost immediately under the weight of complaints that Republicans would be embracing tax increases by reducing tax breaks for the motion picture industry, farmers, refineries and others.

The governor, business groups and the Republican Party of Louisiana pummeled the plan, creating fractures among House Republicans.

Republicans met again Wednesday night and Thursday morning to rewrite the proposal.

House Republican leader Lance Harris, of Alexandria, left the morning meeting and prowled around the House chamber with a pen and a tally sheet Thursday. Harris systematically talked to colleagues before jotting down a notation in either the “yes” or “no” column on his vote count sheet.

“It’s all yeses,” he joked at one point.

The package now before legislators would cut state spending by more than $100 million, offer a three-year tax amnesty program and lean on the Jindal administration to collect taxes from Internet sales.

The key points include:

“This is a very balanced, a very modest step forward,” said House Democratic leader John Bel Edwards, of Amite.

State Rep. Jeff Thompson, R-Bossier City, said legislators cannot continue to promise money to universities and hospitals only to cut their budgets in the middle of the state fiscal year.

“I feel a whole lot better than I did two days ago,” he said, referring to the revised plan.

Jindal disagrees with legislators on the reasons for the midyear cuts.

But no one can deny that they have taken place for several years in a row.

Geymann, R-Lake Charles, characterized the new plan as the culmination of years of work, saying he did not know if he would see it before his time in the Legislature ended.

State Rep. John Schroder, R-Covington, said the revision reflects compromise.

“Am I perfectly happy with what the result is? No. But I don’t think anyone is,” he said.