June 5, 2017 10:19 AM

Defining 'irresponsible' could decide budget, other money bills' fate

The Senate on Saturday overwhelmingly approved its dramatically different version of the state budget that had emerged from the House a month earlier, setting up negotiations to find a compromise as the session enters its final days.

The Senate voted 36-1 to approve HB1 that its Finance Committee rewrote after three weeks of hearings. Finance Committee chair Sen. Eric Lafleur told his colleagues that the budget was a better bill than the one that emerged from the House. It restores deep cuts to the Louisiana Department of Health, Department for Children and Family Services and the Department of Corrections. The committee also addressed late-year budget needs in the current fiscal year.

The House-passed budget was based on a formula developed by GOP Caucus leader Rep. Lance Harris and House Appropriations chair Rep. Cameron Henry. Their budget was based on 97.5 percent of the revenue forecast for the state developed by the Revenue Estimating Conference. The base number of the estimate is $9.5 billion.

"Basing a budget on 100 percent of a number that you know will be wrong is irresponsible," Henry explained on numerous occasions throughout the session. Henry and Harris say their formula is aimed at ending the state's cycle of mid-year budget cuts which have become a staple of state budgets since the first year of the administration of Governor Bobby Jindal.

Lafleur and his Senate Finance colleagues believed that the method Henry and his Appropriations Committee used to create the budget was questionable, if not irresponsible. Their revised budget is based on 100 percent of the REC revenue forecast.

During three weeks of hearings, Finance Committee members made a habit of asking department heads whether they had been given the opportunity to discuss the impact of the proposed House cuts with the Appropriations Committee. They responded that they had not.

The $234 million in targeted LDH cuts the House included in HB1, according to Secretary Rebekah Gee, would have resulted in a cut of $920 million in healthcare programs in the state due to the loss of federal matching funds. Gee told the committee she would have end Medicaid behavioral health services to make that kind of cut.

The cuts at DCFS would have required her department to withdraw from the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, according to Secretary Marketa Garner Walters. She pointed out that doing so would mean that the state would not qualify for Disaster SNAP food assistance in the wake of natural disasters without participation in the SNAP program.

Photo by Robin May

Lafleur stated early in his committee's hearings that he believes the state "has a moral obligation to help the least of those among us — and I certainly include children in that group."

Lafleur told the full Senate on Saturday the House had not sent over a supplemental appropriations bill that was needed to address state obligations in the current fiscal year. He told his colleagues that his committee had done "the responsible thing — we didn't kick the can down the road — we decided to pay the bills we had committed to pay when this fiscal year began." The $80 million included in that bill goes primarily to school districts and local sheriffs based on public school enrollment and the number of state prisoners housed in local jails, respectively.

Sunday evening, Lafleur revealed to his committee that he has been in contact with Rep. Henry regarding bills he considers important to the committee and the state — SB232 and SB251. Both bills are in Henry's Appropriations Committee and both are scheduled to be considered on Monday after the full House adjourns for the day.

Lafleur said he had been assured by Henry that both bills would be considered and approved by the committee and that Henry would handle them on the House floor to ensure their passage.

SB232 would add legislative representation to the Cash Management Review Board, which oversees the state's internal cash management. The bill adds the chairs of House Appropriations and Senate Finance to the board.

SB251 would allow the state to bond the $1 billion in economic damages awarded to it from the BP settlement stemming from the 2010 disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. Under the settlement, BP is scheduled to pay the state $200 million in the next fiscal year followed by 15 annual payments of $53.3 million. Lafleur's bill would allow the state to bond the total proceeds of the settlement, commit the proceeds to existing state trust funds, and allow the state treasurer to invest the proceeds to improve the return on it.

SB232 has been lingering in the House since early May. SB251 cleared the Senate in mid-May but just got assigned to Appropriations last week.

That the chief architects of the competing budgets are working together on the bills is an indication that partisanship has not completely overrun the session.

Photo by Sarah Gamard/Manship School News Service

Lafleur served two terms in the House before winning election to the Senate where he is now in his third term. Henry served as an aide to former state Rep. Steve Scalise for five years before succeeding his former boss after Scalise won election to Congress.

Lafleur, a country Democrat from Ville Platte, graduated from Sacred Heart High School and Tulane Law School. Henry is a Jefferson Parish Republican who graduated from Jesuit High School and has an MBA from Tulane.

HB1 sits on the House Order of the Day for Monday but has not been scheduled for a vote to reject or concur with the changes made by the Senate. It could be a sign of continuing turbulence in the House that began with complaints from Democrats about being shut out of the budget process. That erupted into a full-fledged fight two weeks ago when Democrats blocked approval of HB3, the bill that provides funding for HB2 (the Capital Outlay bill). HB3 required two-thirds approval because it is a revenue bill. The Democrats, who have only 41 members in the 105-member House, were able to deny the Republican majority the 70 votes needed for passage.

Negotiations over HB3 are continuing, as Democrats push for more seats on the Appropriations and Ways and Means committees.

That was before last week's eruption of anger over the House's inability to pass any new revenue proposals, including an increase in the state gasoline tax which would have gone for roads.

A lobbyist with the Louisiana Association of General Contractors lambasted what he called "the toxic House" that has emerged in this session. Ken Naquin attributed the toxicity to a lack of leadership from Speaker Taylor Barras. He said the real power in the House resides with GOP Caucus leader Rep. Lance Harris and Rep. Henry.

The Daily Advertiser leapt into the fray with an editorial that finally saw the light of day on Sunday calling for Barras to resign as speaker. House Education Committee chair Nancy Landry defended Barras' leadership in an op-ed that ran on the same page as the editorial.

The Advocate also reported that some House Republican moderates are upset with Barras' handling of tax issues in the session.

The already charged environment in the House is now being amped up by pressure to address the state's major funding issues in the final four days of a fiscal-only session that has yet to live up to its billing. The session is required to end by Thursday at 6 p.m. As a precautionary measure, Gov. John Bel Edwards has called a special session that would convene at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday if the two chambers have not been able to agree on one or more of the four essential state bills — the budget, Capital Outlay, financing for that bill, and the supplemental appropriations bill that would allow the state to end the year without a deficit.

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