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Capitol Views: House sends budget to governor

Months of infighting, speculation and angling came to a conclusion Thursday when the House gave approval to one of the most controversial budgets in recent memory, paving the way for a final decision from Gov. John Bel Edwards. HB 1 passed by a 61-37 after substantial changes were made to the $28 billion spending bill by the Senate.

The vote reveals a deep partisan divide in the lower chamber, where the party count nearly matches today’s vote. (The House has 61 Republicans and 41 Democrats.)

The governor has expressed concern about the deep cuts that run across departments and strips 30% of the funding for the TOPS scholarship program. But Edwards has not indicated whether he will veto the bill. Lawmakers in many ways will have to being the budget process again when they convene the year’s second special session on Tuesday. That’s when the House and Senate will debate a number of tax and revenue measures to close a roughly $650 million shortfall for the next fiscal year.

“Don’t go jump off the I-10 bridge with this budget.” Those were the best words of advice that Sen. Ronnie Johns, R-Lake Charles, could offer a group of friends and constituents from back home this week.

“It is not the real budget,” Johns told Leadership Southwest Louisiana. “In the 18 years that I have been here, we always have a fight over how we divvy up the money that’s available to spend within the parameters of the budget. The Senate and the House have differences. So the House passes a budget and the Senate passes a budget. Then we end up in a conference committee and we kumbaya and go home and we have a balanced budget. This year is different because of the fact that we are $650 million short on revenue.”

As for the approaching special session, Johns said options are on the table. “That’s where we’ll go in and look at some revenue,” he said. “We can probably renew half of the penny of sales tax that rolls off. We can realistically eliminate about $400 to $450 million in sales taxes that we’re collecting today and still balance the budget. In my mind, it’s an easy fix. I don’t know. We’ll have to see what the House does on their end. It has to start on the House side and then come to us.”

Rep. John Stefanski, R-Crowley, spoke to Leadership Southwest Louisiana as well. “Right now, the number, depending on who you talk to, is either about $640 million or $500 million short of what the current budget was for last year,” the freshman lawmaker told the group. “There’s a pretty good appetite to try to close that gap. Maybe some people want to close it more than others. But there’s an appetite to close that gap. I think you will see at least some sort of additional revenue raised. The call has 32 items. That’s basically anything you could imagine, from credits to any kind of income tax, sales tax. Everything’s in the call. So I imagine you’re going to see a litany of bills with varying ranges and degrees starting to come together very, very soon.”

So how is all of this affecting the mood at the Capitol? In his parting words, Johns offered a brief glimpse into just that. “It is so good to see all of these smiling faces,” Johns told the group. “There aren’t a whole lot of smiling faces at the Capitol.”

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