May 19, 2017 10:39 AM

The committee will meet on Sunday to continue the process that began on Tuesday

Photos by Robin May

The Senate Finance Committee convened on Friday morning at 9 a.m. while other legislators were back in their districts. The committee is reviewing HB1, the state budget passed by the House. This is the principle work of the fiscal session which began on April 10 and is required to end by 6 p.m. on June 8.

Ville Platte Sen. Eric Lafleur, who chairs the committee, says the focus of today's hearing is on elected officials who lead departments and agencies in the executive branch of state government. That will continue when the committee meets in a rare Sunday session.

"What we're doing is going through HB1, department by department, to understand the impact of the budget in its current forms on those departments," Lafleur explains. He spoke with The Independent while driving to Baton Rouge on Friday morning.

The offices that will testify include the secretary of state, treasury, justice, insurance, Agriculture and Forestry, and the Public Service Commission.

Secretary of State Tom Schedler revealed to the committee that holding the statewide special election to fill the unexpired term of the state treasurer resulting from John N. Kennedy's election to the United States Senate will cost his office $5.2 million.

"I had been hoping to reduce our budget request by about $6 million, but having to hold that election made me have to ask for that money back in order to be able to fund it," Schedler says.

Schedler says his office will issue an RFP in the next fiscal year to replace the state's aging electronic voting machine technology. He anticipates the new system will also enable the state to reduce the need for storage for machines due to the more compact profile.

On Friday morning, Lafleur was not certain who would be testifying before the committee on Sunday. "To some extent, that will be determined by who is available," he tells The Independent. He says the committee will reconvene at 1 p.m. on Sunday afternoon.

Jeff Landry
Photo by Robin May

HB1 delivers Attorney General Jeff Landry's office a $2.8 million cut from its budget request. Landry says the House Appropriations Committee did not consult his office about the cut.

"I thought these were your friends. What happened," Sen. Brett Allain of Franklin says, directing his comment to Landry who, like Allain, is considering a run for governor in 2019.

"They just told us they were cutting across the board," Landry replies. "No one talked to us. They did the same thing last year."

Landry asked the committee for more control over his department's budget. He asked that the committee "collapse the budget" which would allow him to move funds within his department as needed.

That raised red flags with Sen. Sharon Hewitt of Slidell.

"When you say collapse the budget, that scares me," Hewitt explains to Landry. "I'm worried that we would lose the level of granularity in your spending that we are seeing today."

Landry says his department would still provide the level of detail in reports to legislators but the move would allow the department more flexibility in moving dollars around in the department during the course of a budget year.

"I'm sympathetic but I need to hear from someone from the treasurer's office that what you're saying is accurate," Hewitt says.

Landry says the main relief such a move would provide the department would be to alleviate the need for his department to go to the Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget for permission to move funds internally in the department.

"We're not going to spend any more money than what is budgeted, but it would give us some flexibility in responding to needs," Landry says.

Landry says the Division of Administration has used the budget as a political weapon against his office. He maintains he has no problem with legislative oversight of his office's budget.

The hearing was expected to continue well into the afternoon.

Lafleur

Lafleur says his own review of the budget approved by the House reveals an inconsistency in the arguments that House leaders have made regarding the budget over the past two budget cycles.

"Last year, the big thing was that the House directed the treasurer to take up to five percent of the money from dedicated funds to put toward financing the state's debt," Lafleur says. "Lance Harris was saying this was going to be a huge change. Well, it's not even included in HB1."

Lafleur is referring to HR231 by Speaker Taylor Barras which passed in the 2016 regular session. It had 48 Republican co-sponsors.

The resolution directed the state treasurer to tap any dedicated fund that got money through a state debt stream in order to help cover the cost of financing the state's debt. The funds are generally considered off limits for use in funding other state operations. Lafleur says the resolution was supposed to free up general fund dollars that are being used to finance state debt. Those freed-up general fund dollars could then be used to finance other state government operations.

"I'm just pointing it out because it shows a certain inconsistency in how we operate," Lafleur explains. "This was supposed to make a huge difference in the state budget. I can't see that it's made any difference — if it's been applied at all."

Lafleur expects his committee to make big changes in HB1 but what those will be won't be known until the committee has completed its review of HB1. He expects the review process to continue well into next week with votes coming possibly by the end of the week.

"I think we'll get the bill to the Senate floor shortly after Memorial Day," Lafleur says. "That will give us almost two weeks to work with the House on it."

More like 10 days, but whose counting?

Clerk of the House Albert Speer tells The Independent that Speaker Taylor Barras has tentatively held Saturday, June 3 and Sunday, June 4 as working days for the House.

When the Senate finishes its work on HB1, it will go back to the House for concurrence on the changes. Concurrence is not likely, meaning a conference committee will be set up to allow House and Senate negotiators to work out their differences in the budget. Both chambers will have to agree on the changes before the bill could go to Gov. John Bel Edwards for signature.

HB1 is the budget for the fiscal year that begins on July 1.

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