BEAM: The Senate Is Too Quick To Criticize The Fiscal Hawks

The Louisiana Senate and others didn’t take long to start trashing the $24.7 billion state budget put together by a rare coalition of House Republicans and Democrats. A historymaking streak of independence by at least one branch of the Legislature is now being maligned by those who apparently love the status quo. Gov. Bobby Jindal has been submitting budgets to the Legislature for six years, and piece-meal funding has resulted in five successive mid-year budget cuts. The House has done some minor tinkering with the spending plan over those five years, but the Senate has always bowed to the governor’s wishes and put his poorly funded budget back together again.

Things were different in the House this year. Rep. Jim Fannin, D-Jonesboro, had his Appropriations Committee remove some $500 million in one-time and contingency funding from Jindal’s budget. He thought it was the only guaranteed way the spending plan could get out of the House that requires two-thirds votes to move speculative budgets to the Senate.

A group of conservative Republicans in the House dubbed “Fiscal Hawks” said: “No dice. We want to put the $500 million back in and rewrite the governor’s budget.”

And rewrite it they did, with the help of a competent House fiscal staff. No, it isn’t perfect and it needs some work, but at least it was a budget of the House’s making.

The Senate Finance Committee is also charged with budget writing, and it has the prerogative to change anything in the plan. However, instead of working towards that goal, a handful of critics couldn’t wait to lambast the work of the House.

Fannin presented the rewritten budget to the Finance Committee, but with some joking and a hint of sour grapes because he didn’t have his way in the House.

“In the past, I’ve always gotten you a bill that had no flaws in it whatsoever. This one you might check it out a little bit more,” Fannin said.

Sen. Fred Mills, R-Breaux Bridge, was critical of revenue from a tax credit for oil and gas producers. He said it only provided for a short-term fix.

“It’s almost like a payday loan,” Mills said.

Dan Juneau, president of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, said in his weekly column the ball is now in the Senate’s court.

“The key players there must deal with the House budget with its internal booby traps (don’t expect the Senate to take them seriously) and the governor’s vow to veto any tax increase bills that aren’t offset by tax reductions…” Juneau said.

Business and industry do pay an unfair share of state taxes, but they also get $6 billion in exemptions and other tax concessions. Those breaks are good when they are revenue producers. However, once they get them they are never taken back, and even those that are losers aren’t tracked down and repealed.

The LABI chief said the likely outcome of the session will be a budget “that would allow the governor to claim success in some fashion for his original goal of the session…”

In other words, higher education and health care, the two favorite whipping boys, would probably get another mid-year, crippling budget cut.

Juneau said when the budget is rewritten the governor, the Senate and Democrats would go home happy “and the Fiscal Hawks would be on the outside looking in.”

The Hawks and their Democratic allies deserve better for the efforts they put forth. Rep. John Schroder, RCovington, a member of the Hawks, admitted everyone wouldn’t like the House budget, but maybe that was a sign it was at least a good effort.

The Council for a Better Louisiana took a more reasoned approach when analyzing the work of the House. The non-partisan organization said the House “staged about as open a form of rebellion as you see in the Legislature these days…”

CABL said some good things happened.

“… The House protected higher education from having to rely so heavily on questionable sources of revenue and removed all of the contingent dollars from the general operating budget. In doing so, they used a somewhat balanced approach and all of that is positive. Even so, there are still some problems with their plan,too, and more work on the budget is clearly needed,” the organization said.

There is nothing wrong with that, CABL said, “and that’s the way the process works.”

“Let’s face it, after five straight years of cuts and shortfalls, the budget is becoming a real mess. At this stage of the game, there’s probably not a whole lot that can be done to pretty it up. But it’s in decent enough shape for everyone to find some way to compromise,” CABL said.

It’s obvious some senators don’t like the House budget, so they can fix it. But would it hurt them to show some of the same independent thinking that was so refreshing in the House?

House Speaker Chuck Kleckley, R-Lake Charles, played a key role in that effort and he likes what happened.

“As speaker, I’m proud of the reform progress we’ve made as it relates to our budget process… It’s this type of budget reform that is needed to allow us to have more accurate projections of budget numbers…,” Kleckley said.

The people of Louisiana also liked what they saw, and deserve more of it.

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