Capitol Views: Early budget trajectory powered by politics

Despite being about $700 million short on cash, and with no comprehensive plan in place yet for spending reductions, there still appears to be a fragile path developing for the state budget document to reach the House floor. Initial committee hearings for House Bill 1—the fiscal centerpiece of each regular session—commenced this morning in the House Appropriations Committee and key players suspect there will be an earnest effort among conservatives to eventually send it to the governor’s desk.

With Republicans outnumbering Democrats 19-7 on Appropriations (not including ex officio members), conservatives could have the muscle to send a cut-heavy document to the full House. “There’s nothing (Democrats) can do successfully in this committee,” said Speaker Pro Tem Walt Leger, D-New Orleans, who serves on Appropriations.

Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne believes a second special session is inevitable, to both pass a budget for the fiscal year that begins July and to raise enough revenue to cover part or all of the anticipated $700 million shortfall. Moreover, Gov. John Bel Edwards asked Speaker Taylor Barras and President John Alario today to pass resolutions to set an early or mid-May end date for the regular session, to make way for the calling of the year’s second special session.

If a proposed budget makes it to the House floor holding that entire sum in cuts, the commissioner predicted enough no votes to tip the scales. “I don’t think there’s any way,” Dardenne said of House approval in the regular session. “They won’t make those cuts.”

Leger added, “If I’m going to vote for a budget, it’s going to have significantly less than $692 million in cuts, which means there will have to be new revenue.”

Knowing there are votes lined up against a cut-heavy budget, Appropriations Chair Cameron Henry, R-Metairie, said, “I don’t see how members can assume now that they’re not for a bill that we’ve had one day of hearing on so far.”

Rep. Franklin Foil, R-Baton Rouge, said he would prefer the committee, on which he serves as vice chair, to pass a balanced budget during the regular session. Then, subsequently, it could adopt a supplemental bill via the year’s second special session that would accommodate any forecast changes from the Revenue Estimating Conference.

The REC determines how much money the state has to spend and optimists hope it will shrink the official shortfall, from nearly $1 billion to roughly $700 million, due to recent federal tax changes. “It is not officially $692 (million) and cannot be until REC acts,” Dardenne told committee members today.

Moving forward, the committee is expected to continue with hearings in the coming weeks, ahead of a possible April floor vote.

Jeremy Alford will publish a daily update throughout the legislative special session on Daily Report PM. Alford reports on Louisiana politics at LaPolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook. He can be reached at JJA@LaPolitics.com.

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