Analysis: Amnesty keeps budget balanced for now

by Walter Pierce

Lawmakers and Gov. Bobby Jindal's administration shared a collective sigh of relief with the news that Louisiana's tax amnesty program brought in the $200 million that they used to help balance this year's budget.

An AP News Analysis

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - Phew.

Lawmakers and Gov. Bobby Jindal's administration shared a collective sigh of relief with the news that Louisiana's tax amnesty program brought in the $200 million that they used to help balance this year's budget.

They even got more than they needed from the program that let delinquent taxpayers get caught up on what they owe without any penalties and with only half the interest charges they would have otherwise had to pay up.

"We have met the $200 million goal," Revenue Secretary Tim Barfield announced within days of the three-month amnesty period's end, setting those concerns to rest.

Lawmakers used the money anticipated to be collected in back-owed taxes to pay for health care services for the poor, elderly and disabled in Louisiana's Medicaid program. If the amnesty collections hadn't reached that mark, the budget hole would have been large, because the amnesty dollars were used to draw down federal Medicaid matching money.

But the success of the tax amnesty program isn't the only contingency that needed to come through to keep the state's $25.4 billion operating budget on track.

Attention now shifts to a $413 million list of property sales, legal settlements and other financing assumptions that have to happen to the keep the state's budget from falling into the red for the 2013-14 fiscal year.

In a recent publication by the Legislative Fiscal Office, the Legislature's financial advisers say more than $343 million of what was budgeted either hasn't yet rolled in or been deposited into the set-aside fund that is used mainly to pay for public colleges and universities this year.

Some of the money simply is sitting in another fund, needing to be transferred.

Other dollars are assumed from sales of state property that haven't happened yet, from savings anticipated to be generated by a new tax fraud initiative and from loan repayments that are in dispute.

The Jindal administration, which orchestrated many of the financing plans, says the assumptions are expected to pan out. Commissioner of Administration Kristy Nichols' office says many of the dollars are in hand and just haven't been shifted to the right treasury account.

"Based on what has already been collected and looking forward to what we know will be collected in the future, we remain confident that all budget goals will be met for this fiscal year," Nichols, the governor's top budget adviser, said in a statement Thursday.

Meanwhile, questions remain about whether the privatization deals for the LSU hospitals are short of the funding that will be needed to cover all costs tied to the contracts with outside companies to run the hospitals and clinics that care for the poor and uninsured.

In an update, the Legislative Fiscal Office said the budget may be $12 million or more short of the funding needed. The Jindal administration, which negotiated the privatization contracts, disagrees with the assessment.

These types of funding question marks aren't necessarily unusual. The state's operating budget is tied to a series of assumptions about tax collections, oil and gas prices, fees paid and a litany of other revenue streams.

As budget strains piled up in recent years, however, the Jindal administration has added new wrinkles to the mix: assumptions that property sales would go through on time, that legal settlements still under negotiation would pan out and that savings would be achieved from new and untested programs.

Lawmakers have gone along with many of the budget maneuvers rather than face even deeper cuts than the types they've already made to higher education and health care services.

That leaves them in a near perpetual waiting game each budget year, with fingers crossed that it all works out as projected - or that enough of it works out that they have only minor gaps to fill.

Six months of the fiscal year remain to wait and see. And if it doesn't all fall into place as projected, the Jindal administration and lawmakers have excess money from the tax amnesty program they could use to fill a few gaps.