Legislative Report

Cameron Henry: Former outcast now shapes state budget Bobby Jindal once ousted him from Appropriations Committee, Henry now clashes on budget issues with his former fiscal ally Governor Edwards

by Mike Stagg

What began as a rebellion against the budget practices of the Jindal administration five years ago has culminated in a House budget process that is independent of the governor's office. The path here was not partisan, although the current budget battles might appear so.

Rep. Cameron Henry
Photos by Sarah Gamard/Manship News Service

Rep. Cameron Henry was vice chairman of the House Appropriations Committee when in November 2012 he and another member were removed by then-Speaker Chuck Kleckly at the behest of Gov. Bobby Jindal. The cause for the removal: Henry and fellow committee member Rep. Joe Harrison of Napoleonville had questioned the Jindal administration's plan to privatize a state agency.

"I was an appointed member on the committee," Henry explains in an interview in his Capitol office. "Each congressional district in the House gets to elect a member to the committee. Others are appointed. When the administration came to the committee with the contract, they wanted to privatize the Office of Group Benefits."

OGB manages the health insurance and benefit plans for state employees.

"I didn't think it was in the best interest of state employees and I didn't think it was in the best interest of the state," says Henry, who was elected to the House in 2007. He represents HD84 which includes parts of Jefferson and Orleans parishes.

"The administration could never answer the question about what was going to happen to the half-billion cash in the account and they could never tell me where it was going to go once the contract was executed," Henry continues.

The Jesuit High grad's ouster from the Appropriations Committee set into motion five years of events that have culminated this year in the House of Representatives wrestling control of the budget process from the Edwards administration. There is some irony in the story because now-Gov. John Bel Edwards led the House Democratic Caucus at the time. Now Edwards finds himself wrestling with some of his former budget allies in a fight over funding state services.

Henry says two things happened after he was ousted from his seat on the Appropriations Committee.

"I started hearing from other members who would come around and say 'Look, the way we're doing things isn't working,'" Henry, 42, recalls. "The other thing that happened was that the Legislative Black Caucus was having a retreat and I went to talk with them."

At the Black Caucus retreat, Henry says he talked about the devastating impact mid-year cuts were having on programs that the constituents of caucus members needed.

"I said, look, these mid-year cuts have been forcing reductions in programs that are the most valuable to your constituents," Henry says. It was a key meeting that led to the formation of a loose alliance that resulted in Jindal losing control of the House budget process. A group led by then-Reps. Brett Geymann of Lake Charles, Simone Champagne of Jeanerette, and Rep. Lance Harris of Alexandria called themselves the Fiscal Hawks.

Harris was chairman of the Republican Caucus. Rep. Katrina Jackson of Monroe led the Legislative Black Caucus and Edwards led the Democratic Caucus. Together with the Fiscal Hawks the informal alliance commanded an operating majority in the 105-member House that came to the fore in 2013.

"We were able to work together because we set the budget as our priority," Henry recalls. "We agreed that we weren't going to hold any bills hostage, or say we'd had to pass support for things that were not directly related to the budget."

In subsequent years, other issues like Common Core diverted the attention of some of the members, but the ideas of realistic budgeting and legislative independence in the budget process were at the core of the rebellion against what Harris describes as "the smoke and mirror budgets" of the Jindal administration.

Edwards' upset election as governor in 2015 accelerated the development of the House's independence movement. On Inauguration Day 2016, the House elected Rep. Taylor Barras of New Iberia as speaker, rejecting Edwards' choice, Rep. Walt Leger III. Henry was a candidate in that race, but ran second. Leger ran first but did not get a majority of the votes. Henry, sensing that he was too polarizing a figure to win a majority of votes, withdrew from the race. Barras remained in the race and defeated Leger on the second ballot.

Henry, who has an undergraduate degree from LSU and an MBA from Tulane, says that some time after the speaker vote, he asked Barras to appoint him Appropriations chair.

"After it was all said and done I had some time to think about what we had just accomplished and what it meant for the body — OK, now we have independence, not only from the governor, but from any single individual controlling the House — I went through and figured out what would be the best spot for me to be able to help the speaker lead us to success," Henry states. "I said, look, it's your choice. If it fits, if it works in your plan, I'm happy to do it."

Henry says the time after Jindal had him removed from Appropriations had actually allowed him to spend more time studying the budget and the budget process than he did when he served on the committee.

He's brought all of that experience to bear in his new role. The 2016 session was rough. The HB1 that emerged from Appropriations was heavily amended on the floor. This session, things operated much more smoothly and Henry attributes that to a framework that Harris brought to the Republican Caucus when it met on retreat in August of last year.

"When you look at what's been happening," Henry says. "You realize that the Revenue Estimating Conference produces just that — an estimate of how much revenue the state will get over the next fiscal year. For years, administrations used the lower more conservative REC as the basis to build the budget. At some point in the Jindal years, they started using the higher number. It gave the appearance of having more money so we could appropriate more."

Henry says what becomes clear when looking at the REC estimates is that the number can't be trusted.

"The one thing we do know about the REC number is that it's going to be wrong," Henry declares. "It's irresponsible to base your budget 100 percent on an estimate that you know is going to be wrong."

Rep. Lance Harris confers with colleague Valerie Hodges.

Harris' framework called for looking at the budget data from the past 14 years and realizing that REC estimates were anywhere from three percent to five percent off.

"So, I looked at that and recognized that we could eliminate the problem of the mid-year cuts if we would start by budgeting at a percentage smaller than the full estimate," Harris says. "I asked why couldn't we start with a standstill budget that spent in the next year what we actually spent this year — not appropriated because there have been cuts."

The Alexandria businessman says that by taking this approach it's possible the state could end the next fiscal year with a $230 million surplus. He says part of the state's spending problems stem from a failure to reduce state general fund spending to levels that preceded the rapid growth in spending that followed in the wake of hurricanes Katrina and Rita and subsequent disasters.

At the 2016 caucus retreat, Harris created two work groups, one to look at tax reform and the other to look at spending.

Henry was elected to the House in 2007 where he succeeded his former boss, Steve Scalise, who succeeded Jindal as Louisiana's 1st District congressman. He says he carried over the work of the budget group into the Appropriations Committee this year. Using work groups, Henry says, allowed the committee to drill deeper into department budgets than working as a full committee allowed. The result was a more tightly controlled budget process that emerged out of Appropriations and remained mostly unchanged after debate on the House floor.

The bill now awaits action by the Senate Finance Committee which will begin working on HB1 next week. Harris says he's been meeting monthly with Republican senators about budget and spending issues. He's not predicting what the Senate will do with the bill.

The independence established by the House, particularly this year, appears to be built largely on an inclusionary approach to leadership used by Harris in his caucus and Henry in his committee.

"We didn't meet in a room and say, 'Everyone's going to vote for this bill,'" Henry says. "We started with the mindset that we can't spend 100 percent of a wrong number. So, Rep. Harris came up with a methodology and we worked from there."

Henry believes the House's independence on the budget would have happened even if Vitter had won election in 2015.

"I wasn't going to change — what you see is what you get," Henry declares. "I think Sen. Vitter might have had a longer honeymoon period, if you want to call it that, but the members had a way that they wanted to do things and that would have been the case regardless of who was governor. Members were tired of the system where the rules were what the Fourth Floor [the governor's office] said. I was tired of it. Speaker Barras was tired of it. We just stepped up and said this is the way it's going to be."

Even though he and his former House colleague, Gov. Edwards, disagree on issues, Harris does credit the governor with bringing a new level of honesty to the budget process from the executive side that was missing in the Jindal years. "I'll give the governor this, he and his administration are not using smoke and mirrors and some of the gimmicks we've seen tried up here in recent years," Harris says.

Harris believes the House's new-found independence will prove good for the state.

"We have three branches of government, and for the system to work they need to be largely equal," Harris says. "That way you get the interplay of ideas and even disagreements that reveal where the common ground is and what the possibilities for compromise are. I think this is all healthy and will prove good for the state."