SADOW: Clarify Louisiana Budget Process To Tame Edwards’ Lawbreaking

As has become his habit, Democrat Gov. John Bel Edwards showed the Louisiana Constitution his index, middle, and ring fingers and said to read between the lines. Now it’s up to the Republican-majority Legislature to respond to that in a way differently from the past.

Just as he did earlier this year, Edwards last week declared he would ignore the state’s governing charter and said he planned to introduce a budget not conforming to its rules. This continues a pattern where Edwards consistently has tried to operate outside the law, only to have constitutional checks imposed by Republican Atty. Gen. Jeff Landry and the judiciary slap him down.

That happened last spring when Edwards tried to introduce a budget that included revenues beyond what the state’s official arm for forecasting these, the Revenue Estimating Conference, had established. Put into the Constitution in 1990 to ensure reliable budgeting that didn’t depend on fantasy numbers, the panel’s four members that include representatives of the governor, House, and Senate, and an independent economist must agree unanimously to change an existing prediction.

Edwards incorporated the unrealized numbers in an effort to increase spending, with Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne alleging this could happen in absence of an official forecast from 2018, which on its face was entirely dishonest since the relevant documents clearly indicated an official forecast existed. Some legislators objected, and Landry issued an opinion verifying that Edwards and Dardenne had acted illegally.

However, no legal sanctions exist against this behavior, and no aggrieved party took Edwards to court over it. Since the REC in 2019 eventually did adopt a new forecast a bit below the unapproved numbers, the matter became moot when budgeting occurred along those lines.

That acquiescence shouldn’t reoccur. Possibly new leadership in each chamber starting next year will see things differently and not want to adopt the super-cautious approach of the departing House leadership (which Edwards hopes), but it also could decide to make that attitude part of a permanent strategy to hold down spending.

In that case, budgeting will have to proceed according to that last forecast. If nothing changes between now and then, any extra funds – estimated around $103 million currently – eventually (if economic conditions don’t change for the worse) at recognition could go towards nonrecurring items.

But that new leadership needs to make its intent clear. It should set out guidelines as to what level of expected surplus (a recalculation which happens when the REC meets regardless of whether any action is taken) would prompt its acceptance of what portion of that, and it should encourage following the Constitution on the official general appropriations bill and express openness to a supplemental bill with increased spending along those lines if an official forecast that goes above its marker occurs prior to the budget deadline. For his part, Edwards should try following the Constitution, submitting a budget using the existing forecast but then have an ally in the House submit a supplemental bill.

The existing mechanism was designed so that a budget could appear in time for the regular legislative session, but a more cautious approach interferes with that. Nor does it do Louisiana government’s checkered reputation any good when a governor deliberately flouts the law in his eagerness to spend more money. The new Republican legislative leadership should streamline this process building in its appropriate caution that also would discourage Democrat Edwards from acting on his worst impulses.

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