Fiscal hawk measures gutted in Senate Finance

A state Senate committee clipped the fiscal hawks’ wings Thursday on a package of bills aimed at revamping the state budget process.

Amendments to the bills marked the second day in a row that the Senate Finance Committee spurned significant portions of the Louisiana House’s approach to the state spending plan.

The committee refused to embed the hawks’ proposals into the state constitution, choosing instead to turn them into a pilot program that could fade away in a few years.

“That’s going to have to change. We don’t sunset budget reform,” state Rep. Brett Geymann said in the hallway outside the committee room before returning to the House side of the State Capitol.

Geymann, R-Lake Charles, leads a group of House Republicans known as the “fiscal hawks” who want changes in the way the Legislature crafts a state budget that funds higher education, health care and other public services.

With a week remaining in the legislative session, the two chambers appear to be far apart on their approach to the state budget and philosophical issues. The dispute could trigger a special session but that scenario seems unlikely given the expense. The alternative is for legislators to resolve their differences by 6 p.m. June 6.

The hawks went before the Senate Finance Committee with bills, proposed constitutional amendments and a resolution.

Only House Concurrent Resolution 6 emerged intact after Senate President John Alario, who grabbed a chair on the raised platform with committee members, pronounced it a reasonable approach to the state’s spending limit.

State Rep. Jay Morris, R-Monroe, was up first with House Bill 434, a proposed constitutional amendment that would separate out for legislators what spending in the budget actually is at their discretion. Other dollars are dedicated to specific expenses.

“This is, in my view, a good government measure,” Morris said.

The committee’s chairman, state Sen. Jack Donahue, interrupted and instructed him to start with House Bill 620, the companion bill that would change state law but not the state constitution.

At the direction of Donahue, R-Mandeville, the committee killed HB434 and put a 2015 expiration date on HB620. “Putting something like this in the constitution before you know how it works is pretty risky,” Donahue said.

House Bill 435, a constitutional amendment to make it harder to use one-time dollars such as property sale proceeds for ongoing expenses, met a similar fate. The bill died, but the companion legislation, House Bill 437, advanced after an expiration date was added.

Hours later, after skipping lunch and listening to debate on a host of unrelated bills, state Rep. Jim Morris rose from his seat in the front row of the committee room and offered a quick decision on HCR6.

“If you’ll move favorable, I’ll leave,” joked Morris, R-Oil City, after giving the brief explanation that the resolution would reduce the state’s spending limit. The limit sets a ceiling on how much state government can spend in a given year.

Alario, R-Westwego, leaned forward in his chair and asked an economist to join Morris at the testimony table. “My concern is we’re anticipating getting large sums from BP,” Alario said.

Greg Albrecht, chief economist for the Legislative Fiscal Office, said legislators still would have plenty of wiggle room.

Before making a motion, Donahue paused to give Alario, who does not regularly sit on the committee, time to offer an opinion.

Alario said the change would give legislators “the play they need” to spend money. With that, Donahue moved favorably on the resolution, which advanced without objection.

Deep in the Capitol basement Thursday, members of the Senate Committee on Revenue and Fiscal Affairs resurrected another portion of the House budget plan that seemed to die a day earlier.

House Bill 653 now would cut by 15 percent the amount of state sales tax dollars that businesses keep in exchange for collecting the revenue. The bill previously sought to create a ceiling on compensation for large retailers.

“Everyone came to Kumbaya together,” state Sen. Robert Adley, R-Benton, said.

HB653 — which the Senate also made part of its budget plan — now moves to the Senate floor.