House rejects amendment crucial to getting budget approved

Democrats aligned with a faction of Republicans in the Louisiana House on Tuesday to force a debate next week on Gov. Bobby Jindal’s budget crafting skills.

A series of motions resurrected a hurdle that legislative leaders eliminated in committee just the day before. The hurdle makes it more difficult for the governor’s $24.7 billion state spending plan to move from the House to the state Senate.

A House debate now will take place on whether Jindal should use expected property sales and legal settlements to patch holes in the state operating budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1.

House Speaker Chuck Kleckley, R-Lake Charles, downplayed the coup as a bump in a very unpredictable legislative process.

“If I had a crystal ball ... I could predict what’s going to happen, but I don’t have a crystal ball,” he said.

State Rep. Brett Geymann, R-Lake Charles, said the House’s action should send the message that legislators want to end the practice of relying on one-time, or nonrecurring, dollars for expenses that must be met year after year. “What I hope they realize after today is we’re serious and we’ve worked hard to get to this point,” Geymann said.

The amendment battle involving House Bill 1, the main budget legislation, amounts to an ongoing political struggle over the best way to fund health care, higher education and other public expenses. A faction of House Republicans called the “fiscal hawks” is unhappy with the governor’s approach, characterizing it as irresponsible. The hawks have drawn some Democrats to their side in the fight.

On the other side of the battle is the governor, who embraces conservative principles and once railed against using one-time money for recurring expenses. His position on nonrecurring dollars changed when state revenue slumped and Congress delivered a huge funding cut to the Medicaid program. The budget fight put the hawks in the odd position of seeking to put the one-time money they dislike back into the spending plan. With the dollars restored, they now can stall the bill and negotiate.

Jindal said Tuesday night that he will give legislators time to work on the budget.

House Democratic leader John Bel Edwards, of Amite, said legislators need time to make budget fixes, cut spending and study the state tax code for possible revenue sources. This is the year to do it, he said, because the calendar moving forward is filled with constitutional restrictions and elections.

“It’s time that we hold the budget bill up in the House so we can explore real possibilities,” Edwards said.

He said what happened Tuesday was not a dig at state Rep. Jim Fannin, D-Jonesboro and chairman of the House Appropriations committee.

At issue is a House rule that requires a two-thirds vote for floor debate when the budget contains one-time money for recurring expenses. The rule, which bears the name of fiscal hawk leader Geymann, stalled budget debate last year.

To prevent another stalemate, Fannin purged the one-time dollars from the bill Monday in committee. The plan was to ease the measure’s passage through the House and look to the state Senate to restore at least some of the dollars.

State Rep. Katrina Jackson, D-Monroe, objected on the House floor Tuesday to the amendments that removed the one-time money.

“Give the House the opportunity to debate the bill (and) be a part of the process,” she said.

Fannin said legislators should have tried to fix the bill when it still was in committee.

“It’s obvious that we’re playing games here in this body,” he said.

The House refused to accept the key amendments purging the one-time money with 23 voting for them and 71 rejecting them in one of two votes on the changes.

The main budget bill will be debated on the House floor May 9.

Voting FOR keeping the one-time money out of the budget (23): Speaker Kleckley, and state Reps. Adams, Berthelot, Billiot, Broadwater, Brossett, H. Burns, T. Burns, Carter, Champagne, Chaney, Fannin, Guinn, Hensgens, Hoffmann, Ivey, Leger, Moreno, Ponti, Shadoin, Simon, Whitney and Willmott.

Voting AGAINST the key amendments in HB1 (71): State Reps. Anders, Armes, Arnold, Badon, Barras, Barrow, S. Bishop, W. Bishop, Brown, Burford, Burrell, Carmody, Connick, Cox, Danahay, Dixon, Edwards, Gaines, Garofalo, Geymann, Gisclair, Greene, Harris, Havard, Hazel, Henry, Hodges, Hollis, Honore, Howard, Hunter, Huval, G. Jackson, K. Jackson, James, Jefferson, Johnson, Jones, Lambert, N. Landry, T. Landry, LeBas, Leopold, Lopinto, Mack, Miller, Montoucet, Jay Morris, Jim Morris, Norton, Ortego, Pierre, Pope, Price, Pugh, Pylant, Reynolds, Richard, Ritchie, Robideaux, Schexnayder, Schroder, Seabaugh, Smith, St. Germain, Talbot, Thibaut, Thierry, Thompson, A. Williams and P. Williams.