May 9, 2016 02:49 PM

AG Jeff Landry

In a dramatic shift away from the Edwards administration’s priorities, the House Appropriations Committee advanced a state budget May 9 that gives the attorney general autonomous spending control, eliminates the office of inspector general, reverses cuts to a free college tuition program and reallocates funding reductions for safety-net hospitals.

In recent history at least, the Appropriations Committee has traditionally rubber-stamped the executive budget proposal presented by the sitting governor, but its final actions on HB 1, which contains the budget, could be charting a course for a political collision with the House on one side and the Senate and Gov. John Bel Edwards on the other.

The budget changes were driven by Appropriations Chairman Cameron Henry, R-Metairie, and were a surprise to many on the committee who had no clue such sweeping alterations were in store. The budget bill now moves to the House, which has a solid conservative majority.

Edwards, the first Democratic governor to be elected in the Deep South in 12 years, seems to have more support in the Senate, which will likely make its own changes to the budget bill — that are more in line with what the governor initially proposed — beginning the week of May 16. A House floor vote on HB 1, meanwhile, could come as early as Thursday.

Speaking with reporters at the Baton Rouge Press Club about the committee vote, Edwards said he had some concerns with the suggested changes and described the across-the-board cuts and the reshuffling of offices as “not the right thing to do.”

The biggest surprise to come out of the first committee vote involved removing the office of the attorney general from the main budget bill in HB 1 and allowing it to have its own standalone appropriations bill.
“We want to try budgeting differently than we have in the past,” Henry says of the change, adding it would give the attorney general more flexibility.

It would also give the Division of Administration, which is the governor’s budgeting arm, less authority over controlling the attorney general’s spending.

Rep. Pat Smith, D-Baton Rouge, suggests that such a move would push Attorney General Jeff Landry toward becoming a “loose cannon.” Speaker Pro Tem Walt Leger, D-New Orleans, says that a standalone budget could face constitutional challenges down the line.

Landry’s office, which requested the amendment, released this comment to reporters: “The attorney general is a separate, elected constitutional officer.”

Breaking from others who preceded him, Landry has been taking more initiative during his first year in office to intervene in cases the state is involved with — and he’s repeating his constitutional authority to do so with or without input from the governor. Landry’s ability to control his own budget, rather than being part of the executive budget proposal, is an extension of this developing political narrative.

Another budget amendment eliminated all funding for the inspector general’s office, which operates as an independent watchdog agency. Henry argues that the office duplicates services already offered by state police, the attorney general and legislative auditors.

Inspector General Stephen Street says his office actually generates money for the state and is the only investigative arm with no political ties. Eliminating an office that can actually investigate the Legislature sends a bad message, he maintains.

“The optics of that are horrible for our state,” Street notes.

After Edwards downsized the free college tuition program by $183 million in his executive budget proposal, the committee voted to reverse that reduction and found the money needed to make TOPS whole. The money was taken from various departments and agencies using across-the-board cuts.

In other action, the committee also voted to overturn Edwards’ decision to fund only five out of the state’s nine safety net hospitals. Instead, members reallocated that overall funding reduction in a manner that all of the hospitals would now have to share in the cuts.

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