New Budget Hearings Open, With $600M Gap Lingering This Year
BATON ROUGE (AP) — Lawmakers are getting an early jump start on budget negotiations for the coming year, but first they'll have to find $600 million or more in cuts to close the growing hole in the current year's $28 billion budget.
The chief budget adviser to Gov. John Bel Edwards outlined the financial problems to the House Appropriations Committee, warning that spending must immediately be slashed to close the deficit left over from last year and reflect this year's lower-than-expected tax collections.
"Those numbers are going to be big enough that you're not going to like anything we recommend," Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne warned.
The Appropriations Committee opened hearings Tuesday to look at how agencies are spending the money they were allocated this year, what cuts they've made and what they've requested for next year.
These hearings usually don't begin until March, but House Republican leaders are trying to find ways to cut spending before they debate taxes during the 2017 legislative session. After approving more than $1.5 billion in tax hikes for this year's budget, GOP committee members suggested cuts are more likely than more tax increases.
"When I go home, I hear, 'You better not raise our taxes anymore,'" said Rep. Larry Bagley, R-Stonewall.
Rep. Steve Pylant, R-Winnsboro, doesn't believe agencies are making enough structural changes to shrink long-term costs. The retired sheriff took specific aim at recent pay raises and vehicle purchases by the state police.
Department leaders need to consider eliminating programs altogether, said Rep. Jerome "Zee" Zeringue, R-Houma.
"It doesn't appear the public has any appetite for raising revenue," he said.
Meanwhile, Edwards's budget analysts are reviewing agency requests for fiscal 2017-18.
The requests aim high, seeking inflationary increases and other items that agencies won't likely get under the plan Edwards presents to lawmakers Feb. 24.
"I think our (2017-18) budget is not going to be any prettier than this year's budget," Dardenne said.
Agency heads described efforts to shrink their spending.
Edwards' Chief of Staff Ben Nevers, for example, told lawmakers his office hasn't filled seven vacant jobs and the "frugal" first lady has reduced expenses at the Governor's Mansion. "She decided to not eat as high on the hog," he said.
FIRST, THIS YEAR
The immediate challenge is finding "dramatic cuts" to rebalance this year's budget, Dardenne said.
Some lawmakers have pushed back against Edwards' proposed $18 million cut to colleges, but Dardenne indicated that's likely to remain in the administration's plan for closing last year's $313 million deficit, which will be presented to lawmakers next week.
Also next week, Dardenne estimates Louisiana's income forecasting panel will add another $300 million or so to this year's total budget shortfall, and Edwards will offer a plan to lawmakers in January to close this second gap.
Inspector General Stephen Street pleaded for no additional cuts, saying his office's investigations into allegations of fraud and abuse have slowed because of staffing reductions.
"I know you're in a very difficult spot, trying to deal with math that is very difficult," he said. But he added that he's "now occupied at least 50 percent of the time with trying to keep the lights on. It is sucking all of the oxygen out of the room."
– by AP Reporter Melinda Deslatte