Capitol Views: House GOP doubling down on budget strategy

    The House Republican Delegation released a video this afternoon underscoring the preference of many conservatives to pass a state budget that reduces spending without increasing taxes. While the imposition of taxes remains a trending topic at the Capitol, lawmakers aren’t allowed to touch the policy issue during the non-fiscal regular session that’s underway. Only regular sessions held during odd-numbered years can host debates on tax bills.

    That’s why Gov. John Bel Edwards, House Speaker Taylor Barras, R-New Iberia, and Senate President John Alario, R-Westwego, have a loose agreement in place to end the regular session early, enabling a second special session can be called, possibly in mid-May. But the idea of boosting tax revenue in that special session still doesn’t sit well with many in the House leadership. “Despite what some may say, you can’t spend your way out of debt,” Harris said in the video, flanked by a sampling of members of the GOP delegation that he chairs.

    Harris, who represents the Alexandria region, released a separate video last week arguing that the budget shortfall could be in the neighborhood of $500 million. During the first special session of the year, the Edwards Administration asked lawmakers for enough tax changes to address a nearly $1 billion shortfall, but estimates for what that figure is today hover around $700 million. That’s due to an expected $302 million increase in revenue next fiscal year from federal tax changes, but there are likely other factors that could shrink the number. “We do not have a $1 billion budget deficit,” Harris said in the latest video release. “That’s a fact.”

    Richard Carbo, the governor’s deputy chief of staff, took to Twitter to respond: “Every member in this video claims to want to ‘cut spending,’ but not a single member in this video has proposed specific cuts to balance the budget. All talk. No action.”

    Republicans in the lower chamber, however, have yet to present a comprehensive plan for what $500 million to $700 million in cuts would look like. As such, the regular session’s centerpiece spending bill, traditionally found in House Bill 1, remains a mystery. Capitol onlookers are awaiting action out of the House Appropriations Committee, which is currently reviewing the budget on a department-by-department basis. Department heads, one by one, have been justifying expenditures to the House committee and explaining what would happen if funding were to be reduced.

    That process included hearings this morning on the departments of insurance, justice and agriculture. This afternoon was expected to bring similar evaluations of the departments of veterans affairs, revenue and environmental quality, as well as certain corrections issues.

    As House budget leaders were reviewing department operations today and debating the size of the state’s shortfall, the Senate Finance Committee convened this afternoon to consider budget-related policies. Included on that agenda was a set of bills to add a new level of transparency for practically all government expenditures.

    The idea of a so-called “Louisiana Checkbook,” or a searchable website of taxpayer-supported finances, first surfaced in the special session that adjourned two weeks ago. But lawmakers ran out of time before any progress could be made. Sen. Rick Ward, R-Maringouin, has Senate Bill 363 to establish a version of the fiscal transparency website and he has been sponsoring web-based ads to bring attention to his efforts. In the video, Ward said taxpayers deserve to see how tax dollars are being spent. “But politics always gets in the way,” Ward says in the web spot.

    Precisely how the site should be constructed and how much details it should reveal are among some of the sticking points. Speaker Barras has House Bill 510 in the House to create the Louisiana Checkbook as well, and it mirrors earlier proposals that were floated by business interests. Democrats, meanwhile, have been advocating for the addition of dollars connected to tax incentives, credits and rebates. Sen. Regina Barrow, D-Baton Rouge, has SB 373 to do just that, calling for the information to be included in Louisiana’s existing spending database, known as LaTrac. Like Ward’s bill, Barrow’s bill was on the agenda of the Senate Finance Committee this afternoon.

    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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