That the state budget, which in advance of the legislative session set to begin in a couple of weeks will be the prime topic of discussion at the State Capitol, is unconstitutional is something you won’t see trumpeted too much in Louisiana’s mainstream media. The Associated Press’ story on the budget over the weekend, for example, doesn’t put too much emphasis on constitutionality…
Conservative House Republicans don’t intend for Louisiana’s newfound budget stability to end the state’s financial battles, particularly in an election year that could be viewed as a referendum on Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards’ handling of state spending.
A joint House and Senate budget meeting last week offered a preview of the financial disputes on the horizon for the two-month legislative session that begins in April. House Republicans and the Edwards administration tangled at the meeting with raised voices, jabs about election-year politicking, and traded allegations that laws were being violated.
The dividing lines remain the same, with a segment of conservative House Republicans, including House GOP leaders, at odds with the Edwards administration over tax policy, spending levels, and the growth of government.
The tactics have altered slightly, with fights focused on the state’s income projections and the mechanics of filing budget documents. But the philosophical disagreements and the politics are the same — amped up by statewide elections only months away, in which Edwards is seeking re-election against Republican opponents, and lawmakers are vying to keep their seats or move to new positions.
In the 10th paragraph of that piece we finally get to the crux of the matter…
Edmonds suggested Edwards violated the state constitution, by not matching the spending plans to available, recognized revenue. Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne, the governor’s top budget adviser, said Barras hadn’t followed state law requiring the Revenue Estimating Conference to “revise the official forecast for the ensuing fiscal year” by January. The last financial forecast for the upcoming year was adopted in June, without the improved expectations of economists and without billions that agencies expect to receive from fees, fines, and other revenue sources.
The Edmonds the piece refers to is Rep. Rick Edmonds (R-Baton Rouge), who at the Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget meeting Tuesday entered into a fairly heated back-and-forth with Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne. If you can’t quite follow this, we’ll boil it down for you below. This video goes 11 minutes and change, and it’s worth watching the whole thing…
What has happened here, as the AP’s piece describes from – predictably – the perspective of the governor’s office, is that Louisiana’s budgets originate from the Revenue Estimating Conference, a body set up in state law made up of the governor, the state senate, the state House of Representatives and the state’s appointed economist. We’ve had a fairly protracted fight going on at REC, because all four must agree on budget projections and the conservatives in the House are steadfastly refusing to recognize some $150 million or so in revenue that Gov. John Bel Edwards and his allies are demanding the state get to spend.
It’s arguable whether that money will actually show up, but what’s not arguable is that if it’s recognized Edwards will immediately plow it into recurring expenses in the state budget and grow Louisiana’s government. And everybody knows that Edwards will keep growing the state’s budget until it’s in deficit again, at which time he’ll demand more tax increases. Standing in the way of that by any means necessary is the plan, and House Speaker Taylor Barras and the rest of the Republican delegation have not moved on this.
So what Edwards did in response is just to draw up a budget document to begin the state’s budget process which just assumes the REC will eventually recognize that revenue. And when the Republicans in the House objected, they trotted Dardenne out to jabber about statutory requirements and how it’s Taylor Barras’ fault they had to depart from the normal mode of operation. You see that on the video above.
Naturally that wasn’t good enough for Edmonds, or for Republican Delegation chair Rep. Lance Harris (R-Alexandria), who asked the Attorney General’s office for a legal opinion on that document’s constitutionality.
Not all that surprisingly, the AG opinion wasn’t favorable to the Fourth Floor…
Today, Attorney General Jeff Landry issued an official legal opinion declaring that the Revenue Estimating Committee must recognize revenue before Governor John Bel Edwards can contemplate its use in his Executive Budget Estimate.
AG Opinion 19-0038 answers a request from State Representative Lance Harris, a member of the Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget, and comes days before legislators must pre-file bills for the upcoming Legislative Session.
“The fiscal year 2020 forecast, as adopted by the REC at its June 26, 2018, meeting, is the ‘official forecast’ as contemplated by Louisiana Constitution Articles VII, § 10(B) and VII, § 11(A) because this is the most recently adopted estimate of money available for appropriation for fiscal year 2020,” opined General Landry.
“The Constitution requires that the Governor submit a budget containing revenues ‘which shall not exceed the official forecast of the Revenue Estimating Conference.’ The Governor clearly violated this provision when he intentionally submitted a ‘Proposed Budget’ to JLCB which contained revenues in excess of the official forecast for fiscal year 2020,” continued General Landry.
“Since the Proposed Budget does not satisfy the requirements of Louisiana Constitution Article VII, § 11(A), the general appropriation bill referenced in Section §11(B) cannot be constitutionally filed using the Proposed Budget,” concluded General Landry.
The next step will be a lawsuit filed against the governor’s office, likely seeking a writ of mandamus forcing Edwards and Dardenne to submit a budget based on the revenue levels the REC last agreed to as Edmonds opens the discussion in the video with. We’ll see if they’ll do that; the guess here is they won’t, because Edwards doesn’t operate that way. His position is that he’ll fight to spend what he wants on state government and not a penny less, and he’ll go to whatever lengths he can in pursuit of that spending. If it’s threatening to kick old people out of nursing homes, he’ll do it. If it’s threatening to kill college football in the state, he’ll do that. If it’s releasing tens of thousands of prisoners, he’s OK with it. And so on.
So a constitutional crisis is well within his limits.
The key takeaway from this is that John Bel Edwards believes his wish list has the force of law. And that wish list never stops growing – meaning that it’s the duty of the people of Louisiana to continue kicking up to him at levels he chooses, regardless of economic or political reality.
And this problem won’t go away until John Bel Edwards does.