BEAM: Legislators Need A Seat At The Budget Table

A group of conservative Republican legislators in the state House of Representatives didn’t have much budget success at last year’s session, but give them credit for their determination to reform the process by which the state spends its revenues. The GOP stalwarts are back again and more confident than ever.

The primary spokesmen for that Republican group that calls itself the Budget Reform Coalition are Reps. Brett Geymann of Moss Bluff (Lake Charles), Cameron Henry of New Orleans and Lance Harris of Alexandria.

Louisiana governors have had almost complete control of the budgeting process since the state entered the Union. They formulate the spending plan, send it to the Legislature for approval and get it back in pretty much the same way it started. Lawmakers might not like the finished product but they know the governor has the last word in more ways than one.

The governor’s line-item veto power over appropriations can be deadly for a legislator hoping to “bring home the bacon.” Louisiana governors also pick leaders in the House and Senate and have approval power over committee assignments. And those who don’t play by the governor’s rules know payback can be painful to their political ambitions. Gov. Bobby Jindal is no different than any of his predecessors, the conservatives said. They said it’s the process and not the person.

Maybe so, but there is one unique feature in Jindal’s case. He has a national reputation as a conservative who likes to cut taxes, curb spending and initiate education, retirement and other reforms. On the other hand, he doesn’t mind bending the rules a bit to find extra money to spend in order to fashion his budgets. In fact, free-spending Democrats in the House helped the governor pass last year’s budget.

The main complaint of those conservative lawmakers is that Jindal too often uses one-time money to make the books balance. One-time money comes from revenues that aren’t likely to be available in coming years.

Jindal also scoops up any loose funds sitting around that might be needed elsewhere. He doesn’t mind selling some of the state’s assets to create needed cash, and he uses funds based on contingencies that haven’t happened yet.

Members of the House were successful last year in removing $267 million in one-time money from Jindal’s budget by a vote of 51-49, a majority of those voting. However, the Senate restored the funds. The House went along with the change, 62-40, but 37 of the “no” votes came from GOP conservatives, who are also known as “fiscal hawks.”

OK, so what is their game plan this year?

Last November, 19 House members asked state Attorney General Buddy Caldwell to determine whether the $25.6 billion budget was constitutional. To no one’s surprise, Caldwell declined to act. A number of Louisiana attorneys general have had a reputation for avoiding controversy at all costs.

The late Gov. Earl K. Long in the 1950s said Jack P.F. Gremillion Sr., a longtime state attorney general, did not “know a lawsuit from a jumpsuit” and added: “If you want to hide something from Jack Gremillion, put it in a law book!”

Since Caldwell wouldn’t decide the issue, Henry and Rep. Kirk Talbot of River Ridge filed suit this month, insisting the budgeting process last year was unconstitutional. They said the budget’s constitutionality is questionable because it relied on one-time money for ongoing expenses, depended on contingencies that hadn’t happened and exceeded revenue estimates.

Geymann talked about other plans on the drawing board. The hawks want to open up the budgeting process, which will be a monumental undertaking. Jindal has jealously guarded the budget discussions held by his inner circle from public scrutiny.

The conservatives also want the budget to be debated early in every legislative session. It has become a last-day decision in virtually every session with no opportunity to make any significant changes.

Currently, legislators can control only $2.4 billion of the $8.3 billion in state money in the nearly $26 billion budget. Most of the other money is protected from budget cuts by either the constitution or by statutes passed by the Legislature. Geymann said lawmakers want to open up more of the budget to cuts. They also want an end to the use of one-time money.

It is an ambitious agenda, but the climate may be better this time around. Those budget practices the conservatives want to reform have resulted in continuous mid-year budget cuts that have hit health care and higher education hard. Neither is protected from budget reductions.

Legislators are especially disturbed over cuts for services for battered women, the mentally ill and drug-addicted and the elimination of an early childhood support program. Reductions in higher education funding have caused faculty losses, larger classes and crippled campus maintenance. Higher tuition has also made it more difficult for low-income residents to have access to a college education.

The fiscal hawks said they don’t blame Jindal for budget problems that have been around a long time. However, they would have to admit that Jindal has been able to take advantage of questionable budget practices that have helped all Louisiana governors. The big question now is whether Jindal will give up some of his political stroke in order to reform the process. It is one of those “we will believe it when we see it” things.

Jim Beam, the retired editor of the Lake Charles American Press, has covered people and politics for more than five decades. Contact him at 337-494-4025 or [email protected].

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