Lawmakers: Expand control of budget

State lawmakers need more control over currently untouchable funds to repair Louisiana’s broken budget process, one of the leaders of the Louisiana House fiscal rebels said Tuesday.

Under current rules the Legislature only has discretion over $2.4 billion of the state’s $26 billion operating budget, said state Rep. Cameron Henry, R-New Orleans.

Henry and other critics say that ties lawmakers’ hands during hard financial times, and results in an inordinate about of budget cuts to higher education and health care.

“There is no way we can continue down that path,” Henry said of the billions of dollars that are off the table in day-to-day decisions.

“That is an issue we must address in Baton Rouge if we are going to move the state forward,” Henry said.

Henry and a handful of other lawmakers made their comments during the monthly meeting of the Chamber of Commerce of East Baton Rouge Parish, a group formed in May to represent small business owners.

They are among about two dozen Louisiana House members — unofficially known as fiscal hawks — who plan to introduce bills this year to change the way Louisiana’s operating budget is enacted yearly, especially amid disappointing revenue collections.

Any such efforts face hurdles, especially if Gov. Bobby Jindal concludes that it would infringe on the executive’s budget-writing authority.

Henry and others contend that the budget has become a patchwork job of questionable legality, and is often crafted by only a few officials and sometimes pushed through on the final, frantic day of the legislative session.

“We just feel the product is not the best it can be,” said state Rep. Brett Geymann, R-Lake Charles and leader of the Budget Reform Coalition.

The 2013 regular legislative session begins on April 8.

The group’s legislative package will be released early next week, said state Rep. Lance Harris, R-Alexandria.

Geymann said one of the bills will be aimed at opening the budget writing process to extend beyond the “handful of people” who do most of the crafting now.

The House Appropriations Committee typically spends weeks hearing from state agencies before the session, and more time reviewing Jindal’s spending plans once they are unveiled. However, the Legislature, which is supposed to have ultimate control over the final product, generally ratifies most of what Jindal and his predecessors propose.

Geymann said there are nearly 500 funds — they are called non-discretionary — set by state law that are off limits to legislators. As a result, he said, higher education and health care, which are not protected by the state constitution, often bear the brunt of the cuts during lean financial times.

Geymann said a third area that needs attention is what he called the questionable legality of budgets, including the sometime reliance on state funds that have not been officially recognized for spending and the use of nonrecurring dollars for recurring expenses.

The latter, he said, violates the spirit of the state Constitution.

“We believe our legislative package will address all these issues,” Geymann said.

The House fiscal rebels, almost all Republicans, said they do not blame fellow Republican Jindal for long-standing budget problems.

“This is an institutional problem that has been around forever,” Harris said.

Geymann said he understands why much of the state budget is off limits to state lawmakers, either because of state law or constitutional restrictions.

Part of the reason stems from a “I don’t trust government” outlook, he said.

Last year budget critics, in heavy numbers, temporarily stalled final approval of the budget in a bid to remove nonrecurring funds from the spending plans.

But after a two-day delay the push died and Jindal’s budget proposal won final approval much the way he wanted.