Budget bill still up in the air

Gov. Bobby Jindal applied political pressure Monday as legislators worked without his input on an alternative to his state spending plan.

Republican and Democratic leaders in the Louisiana House declared that they are close to finalizing a revamp of the governor’s proposed $24.7 billion state operating budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1. They huddled separately at the end of the day to poll members in private about a plan expected to emerge this week.

Details under consideration circulated late Monday. They include:

$106 million in state agency spending cuts, including reductions in Medicaid payments, travel, contracts and a popular job training program.

Funding tax breaks at 85 percent of their current value. Motion picture investor, investment and enterprise zone tax breaks would be among those impacted. Milk producers and sugar cane farmers also would not be able to lower their state tax bills by as much. The reduction would generate $329 million.

Cutting in half tax exemptions for nonresidential utilities and manufacturing, machinery and equipment.

Postponing rebates for corporate headquarters relocation and competitive projects payroll.

Jindal tweeted late Monday night: “We hear Louisiana legislators are cooking up a secret plan to raise taxes by at least $1.3 billion over 4 yrs with no public input.”

The governor’s approach of funding higher education with a patchwork plan of property sales, legal settlements and other one-time money sources would be tossed out. Replacing it would be a mix of spending cuts and tax break reductions.

The state House Ways and Means Committee advanced eight bills as part of an alternative budget package. However, the bills are expected to serve as a canvas for a massive rewrite on the House floor to reflect a new plan for funding health care, education and other public services. Negotiations continued Monday night on the new plan.

“It takes a period of time before the plan can come together. We’re trying to figure out what we can do to offer a meaningful and honest alternative,” said House Democratic leader John Bel Edwards, of Amite.

Edwards said Monday night that members are digesting the details of the circulating plan and have not reached a consensus yet.

The governor called a news conference Monday afternoon to accuse legislators of working in secret on a $500 million tax increase that would impact families and businesses.

Surrounding Jindal were representatives for the farming, forestry, film, wind/solar system and health insurance industries. “I just want to call on the Legislature to open up the process. Let the people’s voices be heard,” the governor said.

The governor gave lobbyists, legislators and industry leaders each a turn at the microphone in front of print, television and radio media.

Joe Mapes, a lobbyist for the Louisiana Farm Bureau, said the organization needs to be part of the deliberations on a new budget plan. “When we’re not at the table, we’re on the menu,” he said.

Members of the Legislative Black Caucus, which is part of the negotiations on the alternative budget approach, listened to the governor’s remarks before quietly filing out of the room.

Later on the House floor, state Rep. John Schroder called the governor’s statements an “absolute distortion of information.”

State Rep. Patricia Smith, D-Baton Rouge, followed Schroder to the podium to agree with her colleague’s assessment.

Democrats and Republicans denied they are pushing for tax increases. They said they just want to lower tax breaks already on the books.

The governor kicked off the session in April by abandoning his proposal to eliminate the state’s personal income and corporate taxes in exchange for a higher state sales tax rate and taxing currently untaxed services. He asked legislators to send him their own tax repeal plan.

Legislators spurned the governor’s directive and instead focused on the state operating budget.

A faction of House Republicans called the fiscal hawks picked up momentum in its largely philosophical approach to revamping the budget process by bringing Democrats into discussions.

The hawks want to end the use of one-time money to balance the budget. Democrats want to reduce tax breaks that divert dollars from the state treasury. The two sides are attempting to marry their efforts.

House Speaker Chuck Kleckley, R-Lake Charles, backed the bipartisan push last week, sending the state Republican Party into action.

The party made robo-calls warning against a $500 million Obama-style tax increase. On Monday morning the party sent an email accusing “longtime friend” Schroder of embracing the Democrats’ philosophies and breaking a promise to voters that he would not increase taxes.

Schroder, R-Covington, said scolding him for talking to the black caucus rings of racism.

The governor tasked Tim Barfield, executive counsel at the state Department of Revenue, with going to the House Ways and Means Committee and testifying against the budget framework bills.

Speaking against a bill that was part of the governor’s original tax package, Barfield said the administration is being kept out of the loop.

“At least put the details on the table, so we can all evaluate it,” he said.

State Rep. Robert Johnson, D-Marksville, fired back that Jindal excluded legislators from key deliberations such as turning public hospitals over to the private sector.

“Now you know how we feel,” Johnson said.