Legislators kick off state budget committee hearings

After a delay for the Mardi Gras holiday, discussion of next year’s $25 billion state operating budget got underway Tuesday at the State Capitol.

The Louisiana House Appropriations Committee dissected the spending plan for seven hours. Issues already are coming into focus on a mammoth budget that funds hospitals, schools, prisons and other public expenses.

Committee members sparred with the Jindal administration on state government consolidations, millions of dollars in legal expenses for Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola inmates and the management of elderly affairs’ services.

Senators learned about a possible $87 million shortfall in the current state spending plan. And it was only the second day of the legislative session.

The committee’s chairman, Rep. Jim Fannin, opened the meeting with an admonishment for state officials to be honest and prepared in their testimony to legislators. Midway through the meeting, he grabbed his microphone and scolded an official for showing up without budget handouts and other paperwork.

Fannin, R-Jonesboro, ended his legislative day by leading the entire House chamber in prayer.

“After all day in Appropriations, maybe someone else should be doing the opening prayer,” Fannin joked before bowing his head and praying.

On the other side of the State Capitol on Tuesday, senators received bad news about possible holes in the current year’s $25.6 billion state budget. The fiscal year ends in June.

Sherry Phillips-Hymel, the Senate’s chief fiscal adviser, said the state is already aware of a $28 million shortfall in the program that funds public schools as well as a $17.6 million state funding gap in Medicaid, the government health insurance program for the poor.

In addition, Phillips-Hymel said something must be done to offset dollars that did not materialize as projected.

A couple of revenue-raising measures approved near the end of last year’s session did not generate the expected dollars, she said.

Phillips-Hymel did not specify which revenue measures came up short and by how much.

Other possible problems include a $10.2 million shortfall for housing state prisoners in local jails and a $5 million gap in money for a criminal diversion program.

“There’s still a lot of things we need to look at over the next four months … before we even get to next fiscal year,” Phillips-Hymel told a meeting of the Senate Finance Committee.

Commissioner of Administration Kristy Nichols, the governor’s chief budget adviser, reacted to the shortfalls later in the day, saying, “This is a common issue. The budget is balanced every year as required by the Louisiana Constitution.

Supplemental needs occur every year, and all funding requirements are met at the end of each fiscal year.”

Nichols said the Medicaid gap will be filled with excess federal drug rebates.

In the House Appropriations Committee meeting, the focus was on next year’s state budget. The governor unveiled his approach earlier this year. Now it’s the job of legislators to craft a final version before they adjourn on June 2.

The committee started with the Executive Department, which includes the Governor’s Office, the inspector general, the Louisiana Tax Commission, the Louisiana Public Defender Board and the Office of Elderly Affairs. Total proposed funding is $3.7 billion. The Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness consumes a good chunk of the funding.

For the Louisiana Public Defender Board, the so-called Angola 5 case is driving up expenses. The case refers to five Angola inmates accused of killing a security officer in 1999. The state Department of Public Safety and Corrections picked up the tab for trying the inmates on first-degree murder charges in security Capt. David Knapps’ death. The public defender board handles the appeals.

Jeffery Cameron Clark and David Brown received death penalty sentences in the killing. Robert G. Carley got a life sentence. David Mathis pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and received a life sentence. A fifth inmate, Barry S. Edge, also got life in prison.

DOC’s legal expenses now total $10 million for the entire cost of the criminal trials. Expenses included the prosecution, defense, expert witnesses, paralegals, court reporters and jury costs.

The Louisiana Public Defender Board is budgeted $479,500 for appeals expenses.

“When do their appeals run out? How much more is it going to cost?” Fannin asked James Dixon Jr., state public defender.

Dixon could not estimate a cost. He said each defendant has his own attorney, and the appeals have to run their course.

Rep. Patrick Connick, R-Marrero, emphasized that the case involves the brutal killing of a security officer. Noting the case already has cost the state millions, Connick asked if the state wants to spend even more.

“Do we want to? We have to,” Dixon said.

Legislators also delved into the consolidation of information technology services across state government and centralization of state purchasing services.

Rep. Patricia Smith, D-Baton Rouge, complained that the Jindal administration seems to be closing departments and moving people around without any indication to the Legislature on plans. “Are we just going to carte blanche give that authority?” she asked.

Barry Dussé, state budget director for the Jindal administration, countered that the consolidation’s been in the works for years and that the centralization is in its infancy.

Later in the day, the committee got to the Office of Elderly Affairs, which often is a touchy subject because of the vulnerability of the people served. The office sends money to senior centers and councils on aging.

One of the biggest complaints was about the impermanance of $6 million in funding for the centers and councils.

“It’s one-time funding. There’s nothing at the end of the line that helps them next year. I can’t feel fuzzy and warm,” said Rep. Johnny Berthelot, R-Gonzales.

Liz Kearney, director of the governor’s Office of Community Programs, said she’d like to believe the money will continue to materialize.

Legislators also wanted to know why the Office of Elderly Affairs lacks an executive director. The previous director was fired by the Jindal administration in 2012 after she publicly criticized an organizational move.

Kearney said a deputy director — who did not attend the legislative meeting — is doing a great job. “We’ve been running very efficiently,” she said.

Marsha Shuler, of The Advocate’s Capitol news bureau, contributed to this report.