Fiscal hawks’ budget bills

The fiscal hawks — a group of Louisiana House Republicans — take flight this week with a package of bills aimed at changing the state budget process.

With income tax repeal likely dead for the session, the focus shifts to a state operating budget that funds health care, education and other public services.

The hawks want to rein in the use of one-time, or nonrecurring, dollars for expenses that must be met year after year. Gov. Bobby Jindal did little to appease their concerns by proposing a $24.7 billion state spending plan that relies on more than $400 million in one-time money to fund the state’s public colleges and universities.

Many of the hawks’ suggestions for changing the state budget process will be debated Monday by the House Appropriations Committee. The legislation contained in House Bills 435, 437, 620, 434, 436 and House Resolution No. 1 would change the way the budget is built in the future. A separate battle brews over the governor’s approach to the state operating budget for the fiscal year that starts this summer.

“We’re just trying to find a way we can work through it,” House Speaker Chuck Kleckley, R-Lake Charles, said.

Frustrated with the state cobbling together its budget year after year, the hawks temporarily stalled the state budget process last year. They plan a similar attack this year.

The Jindal administration met with the hawks’ leaders a number of times after last year’s session.

State Rep. Brett Geymann, R-Lake Charles, said the two sides still agree on little.

“After so many meetings, it’s a little disappointing because I thought we could find some common ground,” he said.

The governor said Thursday that he might support some of the hawks’ bills and oppose other bills. He refused to detail which bills he is inclined to support.

“We’re literally right now talking to those authors about potential amendments and changes. ... We want to have the flexibility to invest in higher education and health care,” Jindal said.

The hawks number roughly 40 of the House’s 105 members.

Geymann, the hawks’ primary leader, said Jindal wants to throw his support to bills authored by members who are hawks. Those bills, he said, are not actually part of the hawks’ official package.

“They led us to believe that they were perhaps going to support some of the bills in the package, but it turns out they’re supporting bills by authors who are fiscal hawks,” Geymann said.

The governor, through an aide, made his position clear during a meeting with the hawks in the speaker’s office last week.

The hawks’ package is a complicated compilation rife with state budget terms. Essentially, they have a few basic goals, which include:

Only using nonrecurring dollars for reducing state debt, construction projects, wetlands, highway construction, saving for a rainy day and coastal protection, instead of for paying the day-to-day expenses of state government.

Ending a reliance on money that is expected to materialize, such as property selling for a certain amount or a legal dispute settling.

Eliminating the rush to pass a state budget in the final days of a legislative session.

The argument seems largely philosophical. But Jindal administration officials counter that the hawks’ approach would reduce funding for higher education by 19 percent because of the amount of one-time money the governor used for public colleges and universities.

State Rep. Alan Seabaugh, R-Shreveport, said Jindal is being irresponsible by failing to match recurring dollars with recurring expenses.

“They’re the ones who chose to put all the (one-time) money into higher ed,” Seabaugh said. “That’s a problem they created. What they’re saying is it’s OK to violate the constitution because we really, really need to.”

As a gubernatorial candidate, Jindal railed against the use of one-time money for recurring expenses.

His tone softened when state revenue slumped.

In addition to grappling with the hawk bills, the governor also must push his budget through the House.

The budget can include only $199 million in one-time money before requiring a harder two-thirds vote to advance. The governor’s proposed budget contains more than $400 million in one-time money.

“Absolutely, it’s a hurdle,” Speaker Kleckley said.