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Capitol Views: Louisiana senators remain uncertain about budget delivery

Legislators are returning to the state Capitol this afternoon to begin their fourth week in the regular session. With nearly a month behind them, and another two to go, few can knowingly predict the future of the session’s centerpiece bill—the state budget.

Not only is there an important timing issue needing a resolution, but also lawmakers have no clue what the budget will look like when and if it emerges from its starting point in the House Appropriations Committee. Adding to the uncertainty: Will the budget, found in House Bill 1, even get enough votes in the House to send it over to the Senate?

Questions aside, many Capitol observers, say it’s a safe bet the Appropriations Committee will endorse deep cuts for the budget, as opposed to the spending Gov. John Bel Edwards put in his original draft of the bill.

Senate President John Alario, R-Westwego, said he hopes those cuts will be as detailed as possible. “I’m hoping they’ll do it by category, by specific programs, to see what programs they are going to cut,” he said. “In the past they’ve taken the position of putting a certain percentage in the preamble of HB 1 and telling the governor to go ahead and cut 5 percent or 10 percent or whatever they come up with. Then we go home and we have no idea what those cuts are going to be. … Then the governor makes those cuts and those people who asked him to do that criticize him for making those cuts.”

Edwards and Alario have agreed to end the regular session early, in mid-May, making room for the year’s second special session, which they want to conclude by June 4—the same day the regular session’s originally scheduled adjournment date. That special session is needed to consider tax proposals, which can only be introduced in regular sessions during odd-numbered years.

The early adjournment plan, however, has not yet been fully embraced by House Speaker Taylor Barras, R-New Iberia. Like other conservatives in the lower chamber, Barras wants to see if the Revenue Estimating Conference identifies any new dollars for the state next fiscal year. The REC is charged with helping to determine shortfalls and windfalls, and the best guess around the Capitol these days is that the budget gap is around $700 million, although some House Republicans believe it could be lower. “I hope that by mid-April we have a Revenue Estimating Conference meeting. I plan to call one,” Barras said.

That means the Appropriations Committee is following the same schedule. “On our calendar that we’re using now, from what I can estimate, certainly by the third week of April we would have finished testimony (on the budget) and will have gone through all of the departments at that point,” Barras added. “If the REC meeting can be held right around that time, and if our economists are available to do that and I hope they are, we should be able to incorporate (any updated forecast) as we send (the budget) over to the Senate.”

But, again, no one’s willing to make any promises. “It’s kind of hard to call right now whether it gets 53 votes to send it over,” the speaker said, “(that depends) on the level of revenue and cuts that are in it.”

While lawmakers will be in session until June 4, one way or another, the House and Senate do not need to pass a budget until the final day of June, when the current fiscal year ends. That has some representatives and senators wondering if they actually have more time than what’s allotted by the ongoing regular session.

Regardless, the political lay of the land leaves the Senate, once again, in a wait-and-see position. Asked about his recent conversations with House members, Alario said, “Well, I have good communications with the speaker of the House. I find he is a gentleman. He has always been responsive and I try to do the same for him. Of course, he has a responsibility to go back to the House to talk with his membership, as I do. But it just seems a little slower getting an answer back sometimes than I would like to have.”

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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