BEAM: The Budget Goes Back To The House

Will the state House of Representatives accept a $25 billion state budget this week that was rewritten by the Senate, or will there be a deadlock that forces a special session?

Finding a legislator willing to answer that question last week was extremely difficult. A group of conservative Republicans dubbed the “fiscal hawks” hold the key, and they insisted they needed more time to digest what the Senate did to a budget the House thought fit the state’s needs perfectly.

The House was proud of the fact it had removed one-time money and funding that depends on things that haven’t happened. However, the Senate didn’t think the House version was much better than the one presented by Gov. Bobby Jindal back on Feb. 22. Senators added $350 million to reverse some proposed cuts and made other changes.

“We have done the best we can to restore as many things as we could,” said Sen. Jack Donahue, R-Mandeville, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.

The House is reconvening at 3 p.m. today in hopes of receiving the Senate’s version of the budget. However, it will be Monday before any serious work begins on the spending plan.

Even so, that is a major improvement over many past sessions when the House was forced to vote on the budget on the last day of the session. This year’s session has to end at 6 p.m. Thursday.

The hawks tried to give themselves even more wriggle room in the future. They offered a budget reform bill aimed at forcing the Senate to give the House the budget back 16 days before sessions end. The idea was to give them enough time to override potential vetoes by the governor. The Senate Finance Committee shot that one down quickly, and for good reason.

Donahue complained the House kept the budget for months and was only giving the Senate two or three weeks to look it over. He said the House had the budget for 81 days and the Senate had it only 18. The time line proves his point.

The House Appropriations Committee started looking the budget over on March 12. It was officially sent to the committee on April 8, the opening day of the session. Appropriations didn’t send it to the full House until April 29. The Senate didn’t get it until May 13, and was scheduled to send it back to the House Saturday.

The fiscal hawks had better success on some of their other budget reform bills.

One measure that got out of the Senate Finance Committee would require the Revenue Estimating Conference to tell legislators which dollars they can count on from one year to the next. That would also make it harder to spend one-time money that can’t be counted on from year to year.

Rep. Lance Harris, R-Alexandria, chairman of the House Republican delegation, said, “This bill would lessen the likelihood of end-of-year budget cuts. What we’re trying to do is exclude what can be defined as contingencies (things that can’t be counted on with certainty).”

The committee also sent the full Senate a bill that breaks available revenue down into two categories. Funds that are dedicated by the constitution or by state law to certain areas over which legislators have no control would be in one group. The other money would be those funds over which legislators do have some control. Unfortunately, that second pot is growing smaller and smaller as lawmakers continue to dedicate more and more dollars that are already in short supply.

Donahue insisted the two measures be tried as pilot programs until June 30, 2015, a sunset date.

Rep. Brett Geymann, R-Moss Bluff, another leader of the fiscal hawks, told The Advocate in the hallway, “That’s going to have to change. We don’t sunset budget reform.”

The full Senate may shoot both of those bills down, but they are definitely desirable in helping legislators get a better handle on the available money supply.

Harris told members of the Senate Finance Committee that House members have toured the state in an effort to educate the public on budget issues. He said the public’s main request was that the budget process be made simpler and more transparent.

“We need a budget we can rely on for 12 months,” Harris said.

House members were reluctant to comment on specific budget changes made by the Senate, but some of them didn’t hesitate to make it clear they aren’t happy with the way the Senate reworked their plan.

Maybe not, but even though they have a few days to make some changes, the Thursday shutdown isn’t that far away. Legislators could come back in a special session to do more work on the budget, but that won’t go over well with the folks back home because of the expense involved.

Some facts need to be emphasized before anyone thinks about doing something drastic. Jindal gave the Legislature a budget, and the House showed some rare independence by rewriting a chunk of the governor’s plan. The Senate felt as though it had a dog in the hunt and did its thing. All three gave a little. None of them are perfectly happy, so maybe that’s a good thing that can be improved on in future sessions.

As they say about baseball and football, this, too, may be a “game of inches.”

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