State budget still in flux

The Louisiana House and the state Senate scribbled down demands and slid papers back and forth Tuesday in a late-hour effort to reach an agreement on the $25 billion state spending plan.

Failure at a compromise over the next two days would mean a special session. The regular session ends at 6 p.m. Thursday.

“We listened. We’re just trying to make sure (the House’s demands) are applicable,” state Sen. Neil Riser, R-Columbia, said after attending an initial negotiation session.

The Louisiana House and the state Senate are at odds on a number of issues, including the level of one-time money and school funding in House Bill 1, the operating budget for the fiscal year that starts in July.

Also in the mix is a package of bills sought by a faction of House Republicans known as the fiscal hawks. The hawks wanted to embed changes to the state budget process into the state constitution that would make it harder to use money from one-time sources such as property sales for expenses that must be met year after year. The Senate turned them into pilot programs that would vanish in a few years. Now the hawks want their ideas to become permanent state laws.

“I want fiscal reform, and I want a balanced constitutional budget,” said state Rep. Jim Morris, R-Oil City, one of the hawks.

The House kicked off talks with the Senate by voting 98-0 in favor of rejecting the other chamber’s changes to HB1.

Normally, three senators and three representatives work out differences on legislation. The House broke with tradition and named six representatives to what is known as a conference committee.

The six come from different parties and political perspectives, reflecting the bipartisan approach the House took this year to crafting a state budget that looked very different from the version that Gov. Bobby Jindal proposed.

Following the House’s lead, the Senate sent roughly half-a-dozen members to an initial conference committee meeting on the budget.

The House presented its demands, which include a reduction in one-time money for ongoing expenses, growth in the state funding formula for public schools and more intact fiscal-hawk bills. The Senate listened and left.

State Sen. Jack Donahue, R-Mandeville and chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said he wanted to give his colleagues time to reflect on what the House offered.

“They have a list. We haven’t presented a list,” he said, adding that he expected the Senate to produce a counteroffer later that evening.

The Senate made dramatic changes to the budget that the House crafted.

The smaller chamber stuffed back in one-time, or nonrecurring, dollars and fixed funding problems in a voucher program that uses state dollars to send some public schoolchildren to private or parochial schools.

At the same time, funding through the Minimum Foundation Program has remained largely stagnant for several years. The MFP provides basic state funding to public schools.

“For me and the vast majority of the Democratic Caucus, a 2.75 percent MFP increase is essential,” said state Rep. John Bel Edwards, of Amite and head of the House Democratic Caucus.

As the two chambers worked behind closed doors on a compromise, the House started flipping bills back onto the calendar, kicking debate to another day. Among the bills now scheduled to be debated Wednesday are:

House Bill 2, the state construction program for the upcoming spending year. The bill now calls for giving the Legislative Auditor’s Office a piece of property near the State Capitol. The auditor’s office, which is housed in the 1st Circuit Court of Appeal building, has long wanted to build a new home.

House Bill 456, which would create an amnesty program for the 300,000 taxpayers who have tax disputes with the state. The program, waiving half of penalties and interest, would run at least two months this year. Some of the money collected would go to economic development and coastal restoration. The House envisioned putting the money, minus collection expenses, into the state budget.

House Bill 653, which would generate an additional $4.3 million a year for state government by reducing the amount of money businesses keep from state sales taxes in exchange for collecting the revenue.

Earlier in the day, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Jim Fannin, D-Jonesboro, said House Speaker Chuck Kleckley, R-Lake Charles, expressed optimism that a compromise will be reached on the main budget bill.

“The speaker was encouraging to chairmen and vice chairmen that things were coming together better than they have been,” Fannin said.

State Rep. Katrina Jackson, who heads the Legislative Black Caucus, said the Senate will have to give up ground on one-time money and largely flat public school funding.

“I feel good about the negotiations right now, but it’s a day-to-day process,” said Jackson, D-Monroe.

Donahue declined to specify what the Senate wants in the negotiations.

He also declined to describe the tenor of meetings, saying he did not want to anger the House by saying they are going well if that fails to be the general consensus.

“We have papers going back and forth,” Donahue said.