Wednesday, 30 April 2014 19:54

How high can Louisiana legislative fiscal hawks fly?

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capitol-newby Tyler Bridges, first published by The Lens

When the House Appropriations Committee approved a $25 billion budget Monday, it seemed to end the practice favored by Gov. Bobby Jindal and senior legislators of using money available for just one year to pay for expenses that have to be met annually.


The committee stripped $51 million of one-time money out of Jindal’s proposed budget, which takes effect July 1.

The committee’s action reflected the influence of the mostly Republican lawmakers known as the Fiscal Hawks. They have argued for years that using one-time money is a gimmick that inevitably throws the state budget out of balance as one-time money fails to materialize as expected. The imbalance, they have also argued, produces shortfalls that lead to mid-year budget cuts under Jindal, which have wrought havoc on the state’s colleges and universities and the state hospital system that serves the working poor.

So does Monday’s action mean that the Fiscal Hawks are flying high again, a year after they finally forced Jindal and legislative leaders to bend their way on the state budget?

Perhaps not. It turns out that there is one-time money, and then there is one-time money.

The $51 million eliminated Monday was determined under a legal definition approved by the Legislature last year at the Fiscal Hawks’ behest.

But the budget advanced by the Appropriations Committee to the full House also contains at least $800 million for which no revenue source exists the following year – meaning the $800 million also could be called one-time money.

“There are still big holes in the budget,” state Rep. Jim Morris, R-Oil City, a leading Fiscal Hawk, said in an interview Monday afternoon. “We’re going to be in trouble.”

The House will take up the budget Monday. Once passed, the budget goes to the Senate Finance Committee and then the full Senate. Senators have not shared the Fiscal Hawks’ qualms about one-time money, saying their constituents do not express that concern.

Sources of one-time money for the state include the sale of a government building, a legal settlement, a tax-amnesty program or the transfer of excess funds from a state entity, such as Jindal tried to do this year by taking $50 million from the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center’s reserve fund. The Appropriations Committee nixed that on Monday.

Budget experts don’t worry about lawmakers occasionally using one-time money for ongoing expenses. But they say that Jindal, who leaves office in January 2016, has made it a regular practice, making it more and more difficult to paper over the state budget’s problems. 

 “At some point, we’ve got to come to grips with having a sustainable budget,” said Jim Richardson, an economist at Louisiana State University who sits on a state panel that determines the amount of money available for the state to spend. “It will be a big challenge next year for this governor and the following year for the next governor.”

The question of how much one-time money is in the budget now before the House has proven confusing to lawmakers in recent days, in part because the Hawks have lain low this session. They have held no organized meetings, unlike last year when they met regularly before and during the legislative session.

Read more of this article on The Lens

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