Dardenne happier about budget

Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne typically complains to legislators about the number of festivals, bowl games and other events piled into his tourism budget.

On Tuesday — with his $93 million budget devised by the Jindal administration before the House Appropriations Committee — Dardenne was a little more muted. The difference, he said, is Gov. Bobby Jindal seems sympathetic to the drain on Dardenne’s ability to promote and market Louisiana as a tourism destination.

“I talked to the commissioner (of administration) and the governor. They have indicated to me that they’re going to try to work with us,” Dardenne said. “We appreciate that.”

Members of the House Appropriations Committee saw a parade of state officials this week. Each agency goes before the panel to discuss how the Jindal administration structured its budget for the upcoming fiscal year that starts July 1.

The input helps legislators as they decide whether to make adjustments in a massive proposed state budget that totals $25 billion. Tuesday’s agenda included Dardenne — who oversees culture, recreation and tourism — as well as the leaders for economic development, labor and transportation.

The presentations also gave agency leaders an opportunity to talk about their individual focus areas.

Curt Eysink, executive director of the Louisiana Workforce Commission, said he is trying to understand what the demand for workers is going to be in an ever-evolving economy. The initial focus is going to be on the construction sectors, he said.

Eysink and Fannin, R-Jonesboro, also got into a lengthy discussion about legislation that bears Fannin’s name.

As a committee chairman, Fannin sponsored House Bill 1026 on the Jindal administration’s behalf. The bill moves money around to balance the state operating budget. The proposed shifts include taking $7.4 million from something called the Employment Security Administration Account.

Eysink said money in that account is used to operate the administration of workforce development and unemployment insurance.

Money in the fund accumulates from an assessment on the state’s private employers. Fund uses include paying for staff in the field, occupational forecasting and the development of self-service tools.

“By sweeping this fund by that amount, in your opinion, does that keep employers’ rate from going down?” Fannin asked, questioning whether businesses’ assessments would be less without what is known as a fund sweep.

Fannin’s concern is that the drop in the balance will prevent assessment rates from falling for businesses, like his. Because the state needs money from the account for the state budget, the fund’s balance will diminish, thereby increasing the need for additional revenues, Fannin said.

Eysink said Fannin was technically correct, but predicted the impact will be very small. Then he said the state could assess businesses in December.

“This could actually cause a reassessment in rates,” Fannin said.

Eysink’s response: “I think so. The reason I pause is we typically do assess that amount ... For most years there’s a cap on what we can assess anyway. The rate itself wouldn’t necessarily change.”

Then Eysink paused and said, “Do you understand? Am I being clear?”

“No,” Fannin said.

Eysink clarified: “If we didn’t spend it and it wasn’t being swept, there would be no need to assess.”

State Economic Development Secretary Stephen Moret talked about job growth in Louisiana, where the unemployment rate is lower than neighboring states.

“Our revenue still seems to be sputtering ... When do you expect that to change,” Appropriations Chairman Jim Fannin retorted.

Moret said Louisiana still is impacted by the national economy. He said recovery spending from hurricanes Katrina and Rita also is in decline.

In Dardenne’s tourism budget, dollars still will be diverted for events. The Independence Bowl will get $300,616. Arts grants will get $1.5 million. The New Orleans Bowl will get $280,577. The Essence Festival will get $948,112. All of those expenses — called pass through in state government lingo — decrease Dardenne’s marketing budget, limiting the amount of money he can spend on commercials and other advertising campaigns in other states.

However, for the first time in several years, the Jindal administration found state dollars for local libraries.

A fund that accumulates state park fees for repairs and maintenance has been used for operating expenses instead of upkeep. The governor found state construction dollars for state park repairs.

Work should begin soon on waterfront cabins at Mandeville’s Fontainebleau State Park that have been closed since Hurricane Isaac in 2012. Dardenne said he hopes to see the cabins reopen by April 2015.

Dardenne told legislators that state park managers are filling the void amid tough financial times for the state.

“We have managers who are cleaning the toilets, making the beds, doing the laundry,” Dardenne said. “We’re having to put more management people in the position of doing it. But they’re doing it. They’re dedicated people. They want the doors open.”