Debate over use of one-time cash
While other legislators celebrate Memorial Day, members of the Senate Finance Committee will be at the State Capitol deciding which side to take in a political battle.
At issue is a struggle between Gov. Bobby Jindal and self-described “fiscal conservatives” in the Louisiana House on state government’s long-standing practice of using one-time money to pay bills that must be met year after year.
One-time money is funding that likely will materialize once. With state revenue in a slump, the governor wants to sell a hospital, use settlement proceeds and vaccum leftover dollars from funds scattered across state government to meet the state’s obligations, including providing health care to the poor.
The Senate Finance Committee is expected to side with the governor by restoring at least some of the one-time money to House Bill 1, the $25 billion proposed state operating budget for the fiscal year that begins in July.
“I’m going to see what the tenor of the committee is,” said the panel’s chairman, state Sen. Jack Donahue, R-Mandeville.
Another committee member, state Sen. Bodi White, smiled while contemplating what he would say to parents concerned that the budget cuts will remain intact and limit the assistance their disabled toddlers receive.
White, R-Central, said the state has obligations that mean restoring funding to programs.
“The finance committee understands,” he said.
State Sen. Page Cortez, R-Lafayette, predicted the panel will try to match one-time money to one-time expenses.
Cortez said he is not a liberal just because he believes some nonrecurring money will have to be used for recurring expenses. “You can be conservative and still practical,” he said.
Other Republicans contend the reliance on one-time money is poor fiscal management and a sign that state government needs to go on a spending diet. Jindal administration officials, led by the Republican governor, counter that they have reduced how much one-time money the state uses to pay recurring expenses over five years, but that some still is needed during the economic downturn.
As the session draws to a close, the support for purging one-time money from a budget that funds hospitals and colleges appears to be eroding.
HB1 still has a number of roads to travel in the final days of the legislative session. First, it must emerge from the Senate Finance Committee to go to the full Senate. From the Senate, it needs to travel across the hall to the House for concurrence on whatever changes are made. Its final route will be to the governor’s desk for his signature.
Contradicting some Republicans’ contention that the one-time money can be purged by cutting travel, supplies and vacant positions, the Jindal administration painted a dark picture for the finance committee to aid in the crafting of amendments.
The Administration warned that the House’s handiwork would result in the closures of prisons, forest fire stations and the EarlySteps program that provides therapy to young children with developmental disabilities.
Donahue, R-Mandeville, gathered the scenarios and bound them in a fat, blue book that he distributed to legislators. The projections account for the erasure of the one-time money, as well as reductions made to account for state revenue projections failing to meet their targets.
Motor vehicle offices, including locations in Baker and Donaldsonville, would cut days and hours. State Police would patrol 25 percent fewer miles of highways. Juvenile offenders would not be able to get haircuts, therapy or transportation to court. Offices that provide food stamps and other assistance would close.
“The purpose was to take the cuts and see what the impact would be ... what it was going to do to the state of Louisiana,” Donahue said.
By the time the legislative vehicle for gathering the one-time money hit the House floor, stances had shifted.
A number of Republicans, notably chairmen and vice chairmen of House committees, voted for taking the one-time money from the spending plan and then reversed course by voting in favor of the vehicle for gathering the funding.
“Just look at the votes. Look at where the chairmen and vice chairmen are,” said state Rep. John Schroder, R-Covington and a critic of using one-time money for recurring expenses.
State Rep. Joel Robideaux, R-Lafayette and chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, said he cast conflicting votes as a favor to House Speaker Chuck Kleckley, R-Lake Charles. He said Kleckley asked him to vote in favor of the one-time money vehicle to allow budget discussions to continue. Robideaux said it was a reasonable request. “I was definitely never threatened,” Robideaux said.
State Rep. Joseph Lopinto, R-Metairie and chairman of the House Criminal Justice Committee, said he voted to purge the one-time money from the budget to end a stalemate on the issue. He later voted in favor of the one-time money vehicle.
“It was more important for us to get a budget out,” he said.
Republicans like Schroder accuse the Jindal administration of picking cuts that scared parents struggling to care for their disabled children, resulting in a parade of wheelchairs and strollers at the State Capitol.
No one, said state Rep. Jeff Thompson, wants to cut programs that are essential to educating and providing health care to Louisiana families.
Thompson, R-Bossier City, said he cannot cite what he would cut. But he said state government needs to shrink, while still consistently funding the essential services.
“As much as everyone wants to play Santa Claus, ... it’s a disservice to promise people they’re going to have services or jobs,” he said.
Others fault the self-described conservatives for failing to draw up a sustainable, alternative plan to using the one-time money.
“They were able to stop the budget process. They didn’t have a plan anyone wanted to put their name on,” said state Rep. Robert Johnson, D-Marksville.
State Rep. Johnny Guinn, R-Jennings, said he wasn’t promised anything in exchange for voting for the one-time money vehicle after voting in favor of purging those dollars from the budget.
Guinn said he changed his mind after realizing health care and higher education would be hurt.
He also acknowledged that threats were made concerning his Pentagon apartment after his vote on a different issue. Legislative leaders control who resides in the apartments, which are within walking distance of the State Capitol.
“I don’t care if I’m not living there. That apartment don’t make my vote,” Guinn said.
Schroder said the Jindal administration refuses to bend.
“We are very willing to compromise, but (neither) the Senate nor the administration has given any indication they’re willing to compromise. They haven’t agreed we can cut 50 cents out of the budget, much less get rid of the one-time money,” he said.
Donahue said he philosophically is on the same page as Schroder and others in agreeing that state government needs to be at an affordable level.
He said a more measured approach is required to end the state’s reliance on one-time money.
Donahue introduced Senate Concurrent Resolution No. 103, which calls for a study of tax credits, exemptions and rebates that drain state revenue. He said he envisions the study being complete by next year.
Guinn said legislators have a “legal, moral, ethical” obligation to put the state on a more stable financial ground.
He said that needs to be done over the long term, rather than in one swoop.
“We didn’t get into this trouble overnight. You don’t get out of it overnight,” Guinn said.