UPDATED: Jindal’s Staff Is Presenting The Details Of The Budget Surplus On Friday

This week, you might have seen Louisiana Treasurer John Kennedy’s skepticism over reports that the state is going to declare a budget surplus of some $178 million this year. Kennedy had said he was going to delay scheduled meetings with state credit agencies rather than present the surplus, which could be taken either as a demonstration of prudence or a political shot at Gov. Bobby Jindal and his staff.

This was Kennedy’s press release on the subject Tuesday…

State Treasurer John Kennedy said Monday that the Division of Administration strayed from standard accounting practices to arrive at a surplus for the 2014 fiscal year.

“I’m afraid that we’re pretending we have a surplus when we don’t,” said Treasurer Kennedy. “We actually have a $141 million deficit if we use the accounting method we’ve always used. The division needs to explain why that method is suddenly wrong.”

The Division of Administration announced last week that the 2014 fiscal year ended with a $179 million surplus. The division did not explain how it arrived at that figure for the state fiscal year that ended in June. The Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget is scheduled to discuss the surplus Friday.

“It appears that the division used the same kind of math that drove the Office of Group Benefits into financial ruin,” said Treasurer Kennedy. “We need to a call a timeout before we start spending this money. We need to see the methodology.”

Treasurer Kennedy cancelled Monday conference calls with bond rating agencies until the questions surrounding the surplus are resolved.

“I want to make sure we don’t have a manufactured surplus,” said Treasurer Kennedy. “I would be thrilled if we have a surplus. My fear is that we used funny math to create a surplus that doesn’t exist.”

The Jindal administration seems determined to keep Kennedy from walking on its cloud. This release went out a little while ago, and you wouldn’t be wrong if you saw it as a broadside against Kennedy…

At Friday’s budget meeting, the Division of Administration will present a budget status report that shows a $178.5 million surplus for fiscal year 2014.

The year-end report shows actual revenues and expenditures in the state General Fund at the end of the fiscal year. The revenue for 2014 includes a balance carried over in prior years that had not been included in previous year balances.

“We will get more details as we begin a more formal review, but it does appear that there was a balance carried over from prior years that should be included in this report,” said Louisiana Fiscal Officer John Carpenter.

At the end of each fiscal year, the Treasury “sweeps” agency funds that have not been appropriated or spent during the fiscal year. That money is transferred to the state General Fund. Going back as far as 2002, some of those balances were not included in year-end reports that identified the state’s surplus or deficit. While the Treasury had used the money for cash flow, it had never been reported in the year-end report presented to the Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget (JLCB).

“It’s disappointing that the Treasurer never reported these balances to the public,” said Commissioner of Administration Kristy Nichols.

Louisiana calculated its 2014 year-end balance on a modified cash basis, the same way it calculated the balance in previous years. This method uses the same basis of accounting as the budget adopted by the Legislature.

Commissioner Nichols said, “Treasurer Kennedy has accused the state of changing the accounting system from accrual to cash. We have not. We are using the same accounting method we have always used.”

A modified cash basis includes all cash receipts and disbursements as of June 30. Adjustments are made to include revenues that the state is legally entitled to, but has not received.  For example, sales tax revenue is recognized when the original transaction takes place, not when the state receives the revenue from the merchant (assuming it was received within 45 days after the fiscal year end).

On the expenditure side, balances are adjusted when the expense is incurred, not when the bill is paid. For example, legal services rendered in June are included in the report, even if the bill is not paid until July.

The balance that helps to make up the 2014 surplus has been collected and is currently in the state General Fund. In any accounting method – whether cash, accrual or modified cash – this balance would be included in year-end calculations.

After Friday’s JLCB meeting, the Legislative Auditor will begin the process of certifying the final numbers. The next step is working with the Legislature to determine how the surplus will be spent.

Commissioner Nichols has said that the top priorities are health care and education.  “The bottom line is that we have a surplus.  Now we have to work to ensure it is used in the most responsible, appropriate way.”

This has happened before, most notably back in 2012 when a dustup between Kennedy and the Jindal administration led to Nichols’ predecessor Paul Rainwater delivering a withering letter attacking Kennedy for his budgetary prescriptions and management practices. Kennedy’s back for more, though it’s tough for us lay people to say who’s right this time.

But the one thing we can say is that this is about as Louisiana as it gets. We can even make something as boring as the budget look like a food fight.

UPDATE: Now Kennedy shoots back with his own statement…

I woke up this morning surprised to find out I am now responsible for sweeping agency funds and crafting the state budget.  I am more than happy to take on those responsibilities if the Legislature chooses to task me with them.  In the meantime, let me clear up some distortions in statements made this morning by the Division of Administration.

As Treasurer, I am constitutionally responsible for the custody, investment and disbursement of state funds.  It is a job that I take very seriously.  At least three times a year, the Treasury sends a comprehensive report to the administration about every penny, nickel and dime in the state general fund, and the Treasury is audited every year by the legislative auditor.

As Treasurer, I’m NOT responsible for ensuring that the administration is truthful with legislators and the public about the amount of money that can be appropriated from the state general fund.  It is the administration’s responsibility to take our reports and tell legislators and the Revenue Estimating Conference about any and all available money instead of creating a secret slush fund.

It is clear that we spent more money than we brought in last fiscal year.  We have a $141 million deficit.  It’s also clear that the administration wants to use its own secret slush fund to resolve the problem while blaming others for the mess.

I don’t blame them.  I wouldn’t want to be held responsible for the bad budget practices that drove the Office of Group Benefits into financial ruin, drained the Medicaid Trust Fund for the Elderly and crippled our universities.  As Treasurer, I’ll continue to be a watchdog over the people’s money.  If the Legislature wants me to take charge of the budget, I will.

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