Jindal administration releases state budget for next fiscal year

As ice accumulated on windshields in the State Capitol’s parking lot, legislators got their first look at Gov. Bobby Jindal’s $25 billion state spending plan Friday.

Legislators seemed happy with the governor’s approach this year — or happier than they have been in the past. Education funding got a boost. Extra dollars were found for families struggling with developmental disabilities. Details on actual funding cuts will unfold in the coming weeks.

“Things have worked out a lot better than they have in the past ... You’ve done a lot of work,” House Speaker Chuck Kleckley, R-Lake Charles, told the Jindal administration.

State Rep. Jim Fannin, R-Jonesboro, asked members of the Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget to make fast work of the morning. Many legislators had to navigate closed bridges and interstates on the return trip home. Other legislators could not make it to the State Capitol because of the icy weather.

“It serves all of our interests to get our work done and move along,” Fannin said.

The proposed state operating budget provides for public expenses in the fiscal year that starts July 1. The presentation of the governor’s 186-page approach kicks off discussion that will accelerate once the legislative session starts on March 10.

The meeting started with a quick phone call to Jindal, who needed official notice of a $32 million shortfall in the current year’s budget. Money gathered from taxpayers on delinquent filings and disputed taxes through an amnesty program will cover the gap without any cuts made.

After tending to the shortfall and other tasks, legislators got to the meat of the agenda: the $25 billion state operating budget for the 2014-2015 fiscal year. The budget is smaller than the current year’s $25.6 billion spending plan, largely because coastal restoration dollars and other federal money fell away.

“Revenues have stabilized,” Commissioner of Administration Kristy Nichols told legislators.

The highlights of the governor’s proposal include:

Pay raises for the first time in several years for many state workers although that’s tempered by a 5 percent boost in their health insurance premium costs.

An increase in basic state aid for public schools, not including dollars added for student enrollment growth, after five years of freezes.

More money for public colleges and universities, partly through tuition hikes.

Help for families coping with developmental disabilities, addressing concerns about long waits for at-home assistance.

For the first time in years, legislators found little to criticize in the governor’s plan. The use of one-time, or nonrecurring, money for ongoing expenses always is a point of contention as legislators chafe at the governor selling property and relying on other temporary measures to pay expenses that must be met year after year. This year, the Jindal administration limited the use of one-time money to paying down debt, plumping up the state’s “rainy day” fund and setting money aside for coastal restoration.

State Rep. Patricia Smith, D-Baton Rouge, shared a pet peeve after looking at the spending plan. Smith complained that funding is stagnant for a need-based college tuition program called Louisiana Go Grant. Meanwhile, funding for the popular TOPS program — a tuition program that doesn’t target needy students — continues to grow.

“As much money as we’re giving out in TOPS, we should consider Go Grants as well,” Smith said.