BEAM: Budget Deal Wrapping Up Today

Republican conservatives in the state House of Representatives made it clear this week they weren’t happy with my column that ran in this space last Sunday. The suggestion that they should consider going along with changes the Senate made to the proposed $25 billion state budget for the 2013-14 fiscal year went over like a lead balloon.

Turns out they were right. A budget deal was struck Wednesday, and a House coalition believes it won valuable concessions.

Some of those conservatives called “fiscal hawks” couldn’t wait for me to return to the state Capitol Tuesday to express their displeasure that I would even think they should throw in the towel.

A few hours later, I understood how they felt. Rep. Brett Geymann, R-Moss Bluff, a leader of the fiscal hawks, sized up the situation well.

“This is our last stand,” he said. “We have come so far and are just two days away. There are certain things we can’t give in on. We will never have another chance.”

Some might ask, “What did they want? And exactly who are ‘they’?”

Geymann isn’t just talking about Republican conservatives. The GOP managed to get members of the Democratic Party and the Legislative Black Caucus to join their cause. That is an historic coalition we haven’t seen at the Capitol in many years.

Reform of the budget process isn’t a new idea with Geymann. Now in his third and final House term, he has devoted considerable time and energy over the last few years trying to institute changes that he and others believe make good, common sense. And they have picked up many converts among Republicans along the way.

Rep. Jim Morris, R-Oil City, has been Geymann’s biggest supporter. Whenever the road got tougher, Morris was always there to encourage him to continue the fight. And this is the year when victory appeared to be near at hand after the House approved a half-dozen budget reform measures sponsored by Geymann and his GOP allies.

Two of their major goals are to put an end to the use of one-time funding that won’t be available in succeeding years and the use of contingency money. Gov. Bobby Jindal opposed the use of one-time money when he ran for governor, but he has used temporary funding in his budgets. Contingency funding involves the use of money expected from property sales, suit settlements and other events that are expected but haven’t happened yet.

The result when both types of funding are used has been mid-year budget cuts for the five years Jindal has been governor because all of the revenues failed to materialize.

Jindal had some $500 million in one-time and contingency funding in the fiscal year 2013-14 state budget he gave to the House. They took it all out and sent the spending plan to the Senate. And that’s when the trouble started.

Four major issues caused problems for the House budget coalition.

The Senate added $272 million in one-time funding to the budget that can’t be counted on from one year to the next. The coalition thinks that will cause problems next year.

Republicans also had concerns about three of those budget reform bills that survived the Senate. They weren’t happy over how senators changed all three. One of those reduces the state’s expenditure limit to avoid excessive spending when extra revenues come into the state treasury.

Democratic members of the House coalition wanted the Minimum Foundation Program that funds public schools increased by 2.7 percent. It hasn’t been increased in recentyears.

Their purpose is to provide funding for a teacher pay increase that is preferable to a bonus added to the budget by the Senate, and it appears they got their wish.

Senate President John Alario, R-Westwego, said his colleagues felt strongly about the $50 million they put into the budget for the one-time teacher and public school employee bonus.

The Black Caucus wasn’t happy about the bonus. Rep. Katrina Jackson, D-Monroe, and leader of the Black Caucus, said it was created to pressure House members to vote for the budget. She said the Jindal administration would have decided who gets it, and it wouldn’t be across the board.

“The amendment was discovered for what it was,” she told The Advocate.

Rep. John Bel Edwards, D-Amite, and chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, said teachers deserve a legitimate raise. And he said giving it to them by increasing the formula that funds public schools (the MFP) is the right way to do it. And it appears the budget deal does just that.

Issue No. 4 is the voucher program that helps students in failing schools with tuition to attend private and parochial schools. That also troubles Democrats, who are big supporters of public education. However, Jindal has reportedly made it clear there is no room for bargaining on the voucher issue that will cost the state $45 million next year.

Those were most of the hangups that were keeping the House and Senate apart. Discussions with members of both houses indicated common ground could be reached that would avoid the need for a special legislative session.

Alario was a key player in the outcome, and he was willing to do whatever it took to complete work on the budget. Both houses still have to agree to the compromise worked out Wednesday, but all sides appear to be ready and willing to do it and head for home after the fiscal session ends at 6 p.m. today.

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