State government expects $163 million surplus

Legislators got a good start on their weekend Friday with the announcement of an estimated $163 million state government surplus.

The extra money stems from the state collecting $8.530 billion in revenue and only spending roughly $8.367 billion in the 2012-13 state fiscal year that ended on June 30. Accountants still need to finalize the numbers in an audit process that will take several months.

“It’s just an estimate right now,” Barry Duss√©, state budget director for the Jindal administration, warned legislators who serve on the Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget. Duss√© said a final number will be announced in January.

Still, the estimated surplus is a piece of good news after a contentious session in which legislators sparred with Gov. Bobby Jindal over the best way to balance a state operating budget that funds schools, hospitals, prisons and other public expenses.

In a prepared statement, Jindal attributed at least some of the surplus to fiscal responsibility.

“Nationally, we faced one of the worst economic downturns in history, and in order to ensure that we weathered the recession better than other states, we reined in government spending and worked to improve Louisiana’s business climate. We made difficult decisions that are paying off and now our economy is growing. There’s still plenty of work to do, but we’re moving in the right direction,” the governor said.

Commissioner of Administration Kristy Nichols, the governor’s chief financial adviser, told legislators that Louisiana is registering an increased number of jobs. She said the labor market is performing well and more people are moving into Louisiana than leaving the state.

“We’ve not spent more than we’ve taken in,” she said. “(I’m) very happy about the state of affairs in Louisiana and the progress the economy is making.”

State Rep. Patricia Smith, D-Baton Rouge, pressed Nichols for details on state employment numbers and Louisiana’s unemployment rate. She wanted to know how many people have left state government ranks and whether unemployment is on the rise.

Nichols said she believes state jobs have dropped by 20,000 positions since the governor first took office in 2008. She said unemployment in Louisiana is on the decline or at least below the national average.

Once the surplus is finalized next year, legislators will be limited in how they can spend it. The state constitution only allows a surplus to be spent in a handful of ways: on construction projects, coastal restoration, state debt reduction and deposit into the “rainy day” fund.

After the meeting, state Sen. Jack Donahue joked that he would like the Senate to spend the surplus. Donahue, R-Mandeville, chairs the Senate Finance Committee.

Donahue’s House counterpart, state Rep. Jim Fannin, said he has learned that surpluses decrease between the time the estimate is given to when final numbers materialize.

Fannin, R-Jonesboro, chairs the House Appropriations Committee.

“It’s premature to start talking about spending the money now when we don’t have that final number,” Fannin said.

Donahue offered one idea on spending the surplus. He said he would like to sock it into the “rainy day” fund.

Also called the Budget Stabilization Fund, the “rainy day” fund essentially is a state savings account that collects dollars for tough financial times.

“We won’t have a problem spending it,” Donahue said of the surplus.