‘Business Report’: Will La. lawmakers make the tough choices necessary to deal with a $1.6 billion deficit?

State Rep. Franklin Foil has been a loyal supporter of Gov. Bobby Jindal, even when other Republicans deserted the governor in recent years. But Jindal’s proposals to close a $1.6 billion budget gap are giving him serious pause.

“The budget leaves a big hole for higher education,” Foil, R-Baton Rouge, tells Business Report in the latest cover story. “It is complicated. It calls for getting rid of some things and giving them back somewhere else. There are a lot of contingencies. I don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Foil is not alone in his concerns about the complexity of the budget situation facing this year’s Legislature, and that helps explain why the money bill is the prime topic of discussion among legislators, lobbyists and the public.

“Everybody’s talking about the budget. I’ve never seen so many people animated by it,” says Robert Travis Scott, president of the Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana and previously a state Capitol reporter for The Times-Picayune.

The budget will get center-ring attention when the Legislature convenes for its annual session on April 13. Long-time observers say the state’s financial situation hasn’t been in such bad shape since the oil bust of the late 1980s, although they are quick to note the situation then was even worse because Louisiana’s budget was more dependent on oil and gas revenue.

The projected $1.6 billion deficit—about 20% of the state’s general fund—leaves legislators facing tough choices on spending and cutting. The easy options for a fix were used up in preceding years.

Making matters politically worse across party lines, the budget-balancing effort takes place in a year when many of the 105 House members and 39 senators are running for re-election or another elected office. Voters who’ve had to deal with their own budget crises after the Great Recession will be closely watching what legislators do with their tax dollars.

And it’s worth remembering that while Jindal has been criticized for the deficit—the governor proposes the budget and can veto the document—it is the House and Senate that ultimately approve it.

For Republicans, Democrats, legislators and the administration, it’s time to buckle up for a bumpy ride.

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