Committee Of The Hole

It was quite a week on the fiscal front at the state Legislature.

Accusations and epithets were flying as crunch time began to approach in the effort to reconcile state spending with the amount of revenues that has been certified as being available to place in the budget. The bone of contention in the budget debate has centered around the question of how much non-recurring revenue should be used to fund recurring expenditures.

The focus on temporary revenue took an interesting twist this week in the House of Representatives. Rep. Brett Geymann proposed and successfully passed a House rule that put restraints on the budgeting of one-time revenue. It requires a two-thirds vote of the House in order to proceed into the Committee of the Whole (the customary practice for debating and adopting the state budget) when the budget bill contains excess non-recurring revenue. Rep. Geymann’s rule was hailed as another step down the path of fiscal conservatism and passed with 60 votes. It didn’t take long for it to be tested.

When HB 1—the budget bill—was brought to the floor, Appropriations Committee Chairman Jim Fannin proposed a set of amendments that would have reduced the amount of spending in the bill by about $80 million. That was the reduction needed to bring the one-time money down to the $360 million level that could be considered without getting approval under the Geymann Rule to use a larger amount of non-recurring revenue.

Rep. Fannin’s amendments were defeated on very close votes. That prevented the House from proceeding to the Committee of the Whole to debate the budget. After a considerable delay and manifest confusion, a motion was then made to get the two-thirds vote needed to suspend the Geymann Rule. At that point, Speaker of the House Jim Tucker came to the floor microphone and admonished every member of the House who claimed to be a fiscal conservative to vote against the motion. He was firm in telling them that no one could claim to be a fiscal conservative and vote to continue to spend excessive amounts of one-time money for recurring expenditures. In essence, he told the Republicans (particularly the ones who just switched parties) and conservative Democrats to “man-up.” Tucker’s imitation of Shakespeare’s “St. Crispin Day” speech in Henry V worked. Only 11 members voted to suspend the Geymann Rule. But the confusion only intensified when another attempt to pass Rep. Fannin’s funds reduction amendment failed on another close vote. A significant number of House members, it appeared, wanted to be viewed as fiscal conservatives but didn’t want to cast a tough vote to cut the budget. The impasse threatened to transform the Committee of the Whole into the Committee of the Hole since it was stymied on the budget.

The next day, after numerous meetings and lobbying on all sides, the Fannin amendment passed. The House took up the budget bill and sent it on to the Senate. But the story is far from over.

There is little doubt that the Senate will remove the latest round of House cuts, fill HB 1 back up with excess one-time money, and send it back to the House. The House will reject the Senate amendments and send the bill to a Conference Committee. Then the real game of chicken will begin. If the Senate leadership and the Jindal administration can’t convince the House leadership to accept the higher level of one-time money in the budget, there will be a stalemate. What the House leadership now has in its pocket to resist any attempts at intimidation is the Geymann Rule. Even if enough of the House conferees vote to bring the measure with excess non-recurring revenues to the floor for a vote, it will take a two-thirds vote to pass. If that fails, it will take a three-fourths vote in a special session to pass a budget—and the foes of using one-money will have even more clout.



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