How bad is Louisiana's budget outlook? State House members get glimpse of grim details

Louisiana’s budget outlook isn’t rosy.

That point has been made repeatedly in recent months, as the state stares down a $1.9 billion revenue shortfall.

On Tuesday, members of the state House were given in-depth, blow-by-blow briefings with some of the state’s top budget analysts to prepare them for just how grim things are.

“This is one of the worst times that I have witnessed, myself,” Legislative Fiscal Officer John Carpenter told the chamber.

Carpenter somberly urged the lawmakers — 29 new to the House this year — to view the budget crisis as an opportunity.

“We have one good opportunity here to actually get it right,” he said.

Much of the budget talk was met with mild interest from House members who mingled about and talked throughout the more than two hours of presentations.

The chamber was called to order so the analysts could be heard over loud chatter as they discussed state spending for education, transportation and health care, among other areas.

A handful of members appeared to be listening intently, scribbling notes into their folders and asking questions to get more specific details. Some of those more engaged members also asked questions in an effort to draw the rest of the body’s attention to certain points, though it had little effect.

State House and Senate members were sworn into office on Monday. Many attended Gov. John Bel Edwards’ inaugural ball that evening and other events tied to inauguration.

Shoring up a budget that has been plagued by a yearly revenue shortages is the biggest task ahead for legislators as they prepare to enter into a special session next month. House members will continue budget briefings Wednesday.

House Speaker Taylor Barras said he planned to meet with Edwards, Senate President John Alario and Edwards’ key budget aides Tuesday night to discuss state’s fiscal outlook. It’s among them that the budget puzzle will likely start coming together, rather than from broad briefings on the House floor.

“Everybody understands the urgency of the financial situation that we’re in,” Barras said after the chamber wrapped up its presentations Tuesday. “The size of the deficit is established.”

Barras said he expects the state will work to cut some parts of the budget, as well as bring in new revenue.

“I need the members to understand and vote with confidence,” he said.

Barras, R-New Iberia, was elected speaker on Monday in a surprise move. Edwards, a Democrat, backed New Orleans Rep. Walt Leger for the post. Leger was re-elected as speaker pro tempore — the chamber’s No. 2 position.

“Most people understand that cutting anywhere from $1.5 billion to $2 billion out of the state general fund is likely not feasible. We have been down this road before,” Barras said. “To raise that much in revenue is probably just as far off on the horizon. ... It’ll be a blending of the two.”

Early in his Tuesday presentation to the House, Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne got the obvious out of the way when it comes to the budget picture the state faces.

“It’s not good news,” he said.

Edwards’ executive budget recommendation is due Feb. 13 — before any work will be done in a special session.

The state’s corporate income tax is sagging, sales tax collections have tumbled and oil prices have been nose-diving, he noted.

All three are key to the state budget.

“We have to be realistic about where we are,” Dardenne said.

Dardenne agreed that the state’s fiscal leaders will look to a mix of budget cuts and new revenue. “You’re going to see cuts in the budget,” he vowed. “We’re working very hard with every option on the table.”

But he said he won’t support relying on one-time money to plug holes.

“The budget will be clear,” he said. “It won’t be covered in smoke and mirrors.”

Mark Ballard, of the Capitol news bureau, contributed to this report. Follow Elizabeth Crisp on Twitter, @elizabeth crisp. For more coverage of Louisiana state government and politics, follow our Politics blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog .

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