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Louisiana budget hearings open Monday amid partisan conflict

April 1, 2019
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Reps. Jerome "Zee" Zeringue, R-Houma, left and Tony Bacala, R-Prairieville, speak during the House Appropriations Committee's start of budget hearings on Monday, April 1, 2019, in Baton Rouge, La. (AP Photo/Melinda Deslatte)

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Lawmakers in the Louisiana House opened their annual budget hearings Monday with a less traditional approach, ignoring the proposal offered by Gov. John Bel Edwards to instead comb through a smaller spending plan filed by House Republican leaders.

Typically, the governor’s proposal serves as the starting point to hearings in the House Appropriations Committee. But Republican Chairman Cameron Henry is using his own budget proposal for the hearings instead, because of a dispute between the Democratic governor and House GOP leaders over Louisiana’s income forecast.

Republican House Speaker Taylor Barras has blocked the recommendations of nonpartisan economists to increase the state income forecast and make more money available for the 2019-20 budget that begins July 1.

Edwards, who supported the forecast boost, proposed a spending plan for next year that assumes the money eventually will be recognized. Henry introduced a $30 billion budget proposal that spends billions in fees and other agency-specific income sources that haven’t been recognized, but $134 million less in general tax revenue than the governor proposes.

Henry’s bill forms the basis of the hearings.

“The governor’s proposed budget is based on how much money he wishes the state had. We’re going to start off budget hearings with the state general fund dollars we actually have,” said Henry, a Jefferson Parish Republican. “And should additional revenue be recognized during the session, we’ll amend that back into the budget as members see fit.”

Henry’s proposal contains the $100 million sought by Edwards to pay for a $1,000 K-12 public school teacher raise, along with $500 salary hikes for school support workers. But Henry’s spending plan doesn’t include an extra $39 million for school districts, or increases Edwards wants for public colleges, the corrections department, and the child welfare agency.

New Orleans Rep. Walt Leger, the House’s highest-ranking Democrat, filed legislation containing the governor’s $30 billion budget proposal, but he’ll be unlikely to get that through the majority-GOP Appropriations Committee.

Edwards’ chief budget adviser Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne told lawmakers Monday that the governor’s proposal includes money the economists believe will arrive in the state treasury. He said Henry’s approach involves “a cherry-picking” of numbers by using portions of numbers recommended by economists, but not others.

“That is a ridiculous inconsistency,” Dardenne said.

Neither budget bill reflects the state’s official income forecast adopted by the Revenue Estimating Conference in June.

A final version of next year’s budget will be crafted in the legislative session that begins next week. The Revenue Estimating Conference is scheduled to meet again April 10. Barras said he’s leaning toward increasing the forecast then, because the state has more solid data.

“Certainly I’m feeling better than I did in January or February,” Barras said Monday. “By then, we’ll have nine months of (tax) collections.”

Across seven special sessions over three years, lawmakers and the governor bickered over how to end years of repeated budget gaps and stabilize state finances. Last year, they agreed on a seven-year package of taxes. But while the majority-Republican Legislature backed the plans, several House GOP leaders opposed the taxes.

The disagreements are heightened by an election year in which Edwards is running for a second term and most lawmakers are either running for re-election or a different seat.

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House Bill 105: www.legis.la.gov

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Follow Melinda Deslatte on Twitter at http://twitter.com/melindadeslatte