Legislators vent over Jindal’s budget

Debate on a bill involving the state’s coastal protection fund allowed legislators to let off some steam Tuesday about Gov. Bobby Jindal’s state budget writing.

“I hope I wasn’t too ugly,” state Rep. Simone Champagne said after accusing the Jindal administration of backing legislators into a corner by failing to protect state dollars. Moments earlier, Champagne — a usually soft-spoken Republican from Jeanerette — told a Jindal aide: “We have been pushed.”

Another House Appropriations Committee member, state Rep. Jim Morris, R-Oil City, said the governor kicked the can down the road until it reached a dead end. “You and I have talked about this several times. You sitting there. Me sitting here,” Morris told Barry Dussé, one of the governor’s budget advisers.

Morris said the next governor is going to inherit a financial mess.

The remarks came during discussion of House Bill 490, a proposed constitutional amendment to restrict use of the Coastal Protection and Restoration Fund. A two-thirds vote of the Legislature would be needed to allow money to flow through the coastal fund into the state operating budget.

In the type of accounting trick scorned by many legislators, the Jindal administration is proposing this year to put $51 million in one-time dollars into the coastal fund, then take out the same amount for the $25 billion proposed state spending plan.

The complicated shuffling helps avoid prohibitions against using one-time, or nonrecurring, money for expenses likely to materialize year after year.

State Treasurer John Kennedy accused Jindal of washing money through the coastal fund. He said Jindal’s proposed budget for the fiscal year that starts in July uses nearly $1 billion in one-time money for operating expenses. The treasurer’s point was that new revenue sources will have to be discovered in just a year’s time.

“The administration needs to take heed and understand the importance of protecting dollars,” Champagne said.

Dussé countered one-time money was used in the budget long before Jindal took office. He said HB490 would eliminate flexibility in difficult economic times.

Champagne responded with a talking point from her mother. “Just because they did it before you doesn’t make it right,” she said.

The committee agreed, without objection, to advance HB490 to the full House. Because the proposal is a constitutional amendment, it needs two-thirds approval by the Legislature before going to voters in November. It would not cross the governor’s desk.

Later in the day, Commissioner of Administration Kristy Nichols, the governor’s chief budget adviser, said the administration is not reducing the coastal fund.

“It always has been and always will be a priority of this Administration to protect our coastline and the communities that rely on it. … The Fund remains whole. This policy allows us to maintain our investments in higher education, health care, and our state’s infrastructure without raising taxes on Louisiana families,” Nichols said in a prepared statement.