Legislative Report

Third week of fiscal-only session ends with no budget action HB1 hits Appropriations on Monday, House floor by Thursday GOP leader says

by Mike Stagg

Three weeks into the 60-day window for the session, the House Appropriations Committee appears ready to begin getting down to its primary task of approving a budget for state government.

(Editor's Note: this story was updated on Friday afternoon to include comments by Democratic Caucus head Rep. Gene Reynolds.)

It took until the fourth week of the 60-day fiscal-only session, but the House Appropriations Committee is scheduled to take up formal consideration of HB1, the state budget, when it convenes at 9 a.m. on Monday.

Rep. Lance Harris of Alexandria, leader of the Republican Caucus, tells The Independent in a phone interview Friday morning that his intent is to get HB1 to a vote on the floor of the House on Thursday of next week.

Rep. Lance Harris

Harris says the Appropriations Committee will take up Gov. John Bel Edwards' executive budget Monday but that subcommittees of the full committee will have a series of amendments to the budget that will fundamentally rework it.

"We're actually well ahead of where we've been in the process compared to other years," Harris says.

"What's different about this year's process is that we had subcommittees of four or five members of Appropriations take separate parts of the budget and really drill down into the budgets of departments and programs to a level of detail that has not been possible when we had the full committee reviewing the budget," Harris explains.

Harris says Appropriations will work with the revenue base developed by the Legislature's chief economist, Greg Albrecht. He confirms speculation that the aim of the Republican leadership is to avoid midyear budget cuts, thus the target for the budget will be based on 97.4 percent of Albrecht's revenue estimate.

Albrecht tells The Independent the number he recommended to the committee for General Fund revenue (the money that the requires government appropriation to be generated) is $9.469 billion. The rest of the money included in the overall budget includes federal revenue, and income generated by fees.

"My number is a little higher than the administration's number because I think corporate income and franchise tax revenue will come in a little higher than they did," Albrecht says.

Rep. Cameron Henry

House Appropriations Chairman Cameron Henry of Metairie also thinks his committee can clear HB1 on Monday and get it to a debate and vote on the floor of the House by Thursday.

"That will give the Senate a full three weeks to consider and debate the budget," Henry tells The IND.

The budget prepared by Henry's committee in 2016 was heavily reworked on the floor of the House and then later by the Senate.

He says that the budget is an iterative process, that he expects changes to occur at each step of the way.

"It will change in our committee, then there will likely be changes made on the House floor," Henry says. "Then the Senate will get it and it will go through changes there. If necessary, it'll end up in a conference committee where it will change again."

Henry says the approach to this year's budget began with one certainty — that the Revenue Estimating Conference revenue forecast would not be accurate.

"We know that it's been off by as much as 5 percent in previous years," Henry says. "I think it's irresponsible to base a budget on a number that we know is not accurate."

He says that by basing revenue numbers on 97.4 percent of the REC numbers, the state can avoid the midyear budget cuts that have wreaked havoc in state programs over the past nine years.

"If you work from that 97.4 or 97.5 percent number, it provides a cushion of about $250 million dollars that we think is in the margin of error in the REC numbers," Henry says. "That means we could eliminate the need for midyear cuts, which is what we're after."

Harris says an additional benefit is that basing the budget on a percentage of the revenue forecast also reduces the size of the so-called fiscal cliff the state faces in 2018 when temporary taxes passed in 2016 to limit some of the carnage of the fiscal mess left in the wake of the Jindal administration expire.

"Taking this approach actually positions us to have a budget this coming year that is about $240 million to the good instead of having a $400 million hole," Harris explains. "We think it also reduces the size of the cliff from $1.4 billion to about $700 million. It's big, but it's more manageable."

The devil of the budget is in the details. Democrats and the governor's office have been pressing Republican leaders for details on what will be cut and what will be funded. None have been forthcoming.

Rep. Gene Reynolds of Minden spoke with The Independent on Friday afternoon. Reynolds, who heads the 41-member House Democratic Caucus says Speaker Taylor Barras and Rep. Henry spoke about the budget framework in their meeting with the Caucus on Thursday, but details as to what would be cut were missing.

"We understand that there will be cuts, but we need specifics, and those have been difficult to get," Reynolds says. "We have no clue as to what they're going to cut, where or how much."

Reynolds says he's not sure how much of the details of the budget have been shared outside the Republican leadership and the Appropriations Committee members.

That will change on Monday when Henry's Appropriations Committee convenes.

"The truth is that we are only 41 members," Reynolds concedes, referring to his caucus. "The Republican majority is going to do what they want to do and they are going to own whatever it is that they do."

Budgets only require simple majorities to pass. Republicans hold a 64-41 advantage over Democrats in the House. They do not need any Democratic votes in order to pass HB1. The larger challenge will likely come from the Senate where lawmakers there are less ideological and more amenable to doing business with the Edwards administration. Considering the difference in the makeup and outlook of the two chambers, there is a strong likelihood that the budget will only be resolved in a conference committee made up of an equal number of members of the House and Senate.

The product of the conference committee would then have to be approved by each chamber.

The session will end no later than 6 p.m. on June 8.