The House Appropriations Committee will unveil its changes to HB1, the state's budget for the fiscal year that begins on July 1, in a meeting that began this morning at 9 a.m. By the time the committee finishes its work today, Committee Chairman Rep. Cameron Henry says, its work on the budget will also be done and it will be on its way to the House floor for a vote later this week.
The bill in its current form represents the budget recommended by Gov. John Bel Edwards and his administration. Henry says his committee divided into sub-groups to examine the budget in discreet pieces rather than as a whole. He explains that his allows a more detailed examination of the budget than having the full committee examine it as has been customary in the past.
"Having the sub-groups look at the budget allows them to drill down in greater detail in each segment of budget down to the program level," Henry explains. The committee chair spoke with The Independent by phone on Friday.
Much of that work took place out of the public spotlight. In earlier years, the entire Appropriations Committee pored over the budget in hearings that lasted for hours in a process that stretched out for days and weeks.
In this session, there was curiously little public work done on the budget in a fiscal only session which is limited to 45 days in session over 60 calendar days. The Appropriations committee met as a body fewer than five times over the first three weeks of the current session.
Last week, details of a general framework emerged. Republicans were going to base their budget on 97.5% of the Revenue Estimating Conference's revenue projections for the coming fiscal year.
Henry says to do otherwise is irresponsible.
"What we've learned over the last nine years is that the projections of the Revenue Estimating Conference are not accurate," Henry says. "We have the record of mid-year budget cuts to prove that. So, what we've done is start with that assumption and based the budget on a percentage of that estimate which we feels will provide us a margin for error if — as we assume will be the case — the REC's estimate is wrong."
House Republican Caucus leader Rep. Lance Harris of Alexandria says budgeting from that basis should produce a surplus for the state at the end of the next fiscal year and reduce the size of the so-called fiscal cliff in the following fiscal year when temporary taxes passed in 2016 are set to expire.
"We believe we come out about $240 million to the good on this budget using this approach," Harris tells The Independent. "It also cuts the size of the fiscal cliff in half. It goes down from about $1.3 billion to about $700 million. That's still a problem but it's not nearly as big as it could have been."
Harris and the Republicans hold a 60-41-3 majority in the 105-member House. Budgets require only majority votes.
Rep. Gene Reynolds of Minden leads the House Democratic Caucus. He says Democrats have been shut out of the budget process by Henry and others. He says the problem for members of his caucus — and presumably the Edwards administration — is what will be cut and by how much. He spoke with The Independent by phone on Friday afternoon.
"We are concerned about the collateral damage that can result from the approach that is being used," Reynolds says. "We want to remind our Republican colleagues that there are people attached to those dollars who depend on those programs for services. They have not been able to provide us with much in the way of details."
Harris says he intends to move the budget out of the House by the end of day Thursday. Henry says that will give the Senate "three weeks or so to work on it — which is more time than they've been given in previous years."
Henry acknowledges that his committee's work is one phase of a process that will not end until just before the session does. That knowledge stems in part from the lesson he learned last year in his first year as Appropriations chairman. In 2016, HB1 was fiercely debated and amended in two-days of extended floor discussion. More than 30 amendments were considered, about one-third of which were approved.
The Senate received HB1 with about two weeks left in the 2016 session. Sen. Eric LaFleur's Senate Finance Committee reworked the bill with five days left in the session. The Senate adopted the revised budget, which sent it back to the House for approval. The Senate changes were rejected, which sent the bill to a conference committee which always consists of an equal number of members from the House and the Senate.
Conference committees deliberate behind closed doors trying to reconcile the differences between the budgets passed by the two chambers.
We appear to be headed toward a conference committee settled budget again, as more giving the Senate more time to consider the budget will not erase the differences in perspective that inform the thought processes in the two chambers. The Senate is more hospitable to the administration and is less ideological. Control of the House resides outside the Capitol, in the hands of interest groups and political organizations that are not part of the government.