Books balanced for La.'s last budget year, with borrowing

The books on Louisiana’s last budget year have been closed, but it took a bit of borrowing from this year to make the numbers work.

To fill gaps in the budget that ended June 30, the treasury had to dip into dollars slated to pay for state agency operations this year. Treasurer John Kennedy said the state used $24 million from this year’s budget to plug last year’s holes.

That’s part of a continuing balancing act used by Gov. Bobby Jindal and state lawmakers that relies on patchwork funding from items like property sales, legal settlements and hurricane recovery spending reimbursements to keep state programs and services operating.

Jindal’s top budget adviser, Commissioner of Administration Kristy Nichols, said Tuesday that the budget was balanced and the borrowing was only temporary.

“We always knew that fiscal year 2014 was fully funded,” she said in a statement.

But Kennedy said there’s a “structural deficit” in the state’s annual spending plans, relying too heavily on uncertain sources of cash and scrambling to fill gaps when the money doesn’t arrive as expected.

“At some point, the maneuvers and tricks are going to run out,” Kennedy said.

While the 2013-14 budget year closed June 30, the year didn’t close for accounting purposes until Aug. 14, and number-crunching has been going on since then to determine how things wrapped up.

Jindal and lawmakers balanced last year’s $25 billion budget with more than $400 million in piecemeal financing, plugged into what is called the Overcollections Fund, a sort of catch-all fund in the treasury.

Most of that money was earmarked for the state’s public colleges, and the Jindal administration had to take a series of loans from other treasury funds to pay for higher education operations until the dollars arrived.

According to the Treasurer’s Office, more money poured into the Overcollections Fund than was originally expected, about $419 million, including more cash than anticipated from an anti-fraud initiative in the Department of Revenue.

The problem is that Jindal and lawmakers budgeted $443 million from the fund in last year’s budget, according to the treasury, spending more than was projected to be available.

Nichols said the patchwork financing “can sometimes face delays and come in a little later than we expect.”

“But, I don’t consider that a shortfall. FY14 was fully funded and FY15 will be as well,” she said.

The Jindal administration and lawmakers gave themselves a little padding for this year’s budget, which could help address any gaps.

They expect more dollars to come into the Overcollections Fund than what they planned to spend, so if a few revenue sources fall short, the budget still could stay in balance.

“They have some wiggle room in here right now, but we have to see what happens, because you’ve still got some pretty big figures out there that haven’t been collected,” said Laura Lapeze, chief financial officer for the treasury.