Legislators spend surplus, cut one-time money

In the hectic final hours of the legislative session, state Rep. Brett Geymann broke off a conversation and absentmindedly reached for a proffered pen to sign the state supplemental budget.

Geymann, R-Lake Charles, quickly realized his mistake and shrank back, declining the pen and paper before him with a shake of his head.

As a member of a faction of House Republicans known as the fiscal hawks, Geymann said he could not agree to the direction of dollars in a bill that takes care of lingering expenses in the current budget year — even though he helped broker the final product. Specifically, he objected to using a state government surplus for health care expenses rather than saving it for a rainy day.

Moments later, though, Geymann and other hawks backed another budget bill that clashed with their principles.

The House board lit up like a string of green Christmas lights as the fiscal hawks and the rest of the House voted in favor of a $25 billion state spending plan that relies on one-time, or nonrecurring, dollars to pay expenses that must be met year after year.

“It took me awhile to get there, but again, in taking a step back and looking at all the accomplishments, I was willing to go one more time with a little bit of one-time (money),” Geymann said.

The hawks — who consider themselves to be fiscal conservatives — cringed when Gov. Bobby Jindal offered a state budget loaded with roughly $500 million in one-time dollars for ongoing expenses.

The governor planned to sell property, settle legal disputes and grab leftover dollars from funds that are supposed to be used for building artificial reefs, fighting truancy and treating traumatic brain injuries.

The fiscal hawks blasted Jindal’s plan as irresponsible because it relied on money not yet in hand. They also criticized the practice of using one-time dollars to pay expenses that pop up every year.

The House purged those dollars from the budget. The Senate stuffed them back in. Haggling between the two chambers resulted in a state operating budget that relies on between $80 million and $100 million in one-time money for recurring expenses.

The hawks voted in favor of House Bill 1, the spending plan for the fiscal year that starts July 1. No concerns were raised during floor debate about money not materializing and mid-year budget cuts resulting.

Afterward, the hawks said they supported the budget because it now is on a diet after years of gorging on one-time dollars.

“We’re down to somewhere around roughly $80 million, down almost $400 million from the (governor’s plan). We’ve made huge strides in that. We’re getting near zero,” said state Rep. Cameron Henry, R-Metairie and a fiscal hawk.

Henry said the one-time dollars for recurring expenses are a large pharmaceutical settlement, property sales, fund balances and other legal settlements.

The dollars include some of the same ones the governor proposed using.

“(We have) comfort levels that this money was going to come to fruition. If some of it doesn’t, we’re looking at substantially less (in cuts),” Henry said.

The budget also would be supported by money from a tax amnesty program, which aims to give taxpayers an incentive for settling their tax disputes with the state.

Amnesty would run for three years. For two months this year, half of interest would be waived for taxes paid in full. In 2014 and 2015, taxpayers would get a 10 to 15 percent break on penalties.

Legislators put $200 million from the first year of the program into health care even though economists predicted amnesty would not generate that much money.

Geymann said amnesty is a short term solution, at best, and that he does not like relying on it.

“This budget’s not perfect, and it didn’t solve all the problems, but I do think it’s a big step,” he said.