- Associated Press - Sunday, January 19, 2014

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - State lawmakers don’t convene their legislative session until March, but the unveiling of Gov. Bobby Jindal’s budget proposal this week sets the stage for the financial debates that inevitably form the session’s central arguments.

The Republican governor’s spending recommendations will be presented to the House and Senate budget committees Friday. Then, lawmakers will have a roadmap of Jindal’s priorities for the 2014-15 fiscal year that begins July 1.

They’ll know how the governor wants to spend more than $200 million in unallocated cash from Louisiana’s treasury, a question he’s dodged for months while lawmakers floated their ideas.

They’ll see how Jindal wants to close another shortfall in the state’s operating budget after years of cuts, efficiencies and crafty financial maneuvers have patched together spending plans.

Agencies, lobbyists and advocates for specific causes will know if they have to battle for spending on their favored programs, or if they have the governor’s blessing as a starting point.

The presentation of the governor’s executive budget is sort of like Jindal revealing his hand in a high-stakes poker game.

In many other states, lawmakers take a look at a governor’s spending recommendations and then toss them in the trash before starting the work of devising the state operating budget.

Not so in Louisiana, where a governor traditionally has a heavy say in how dollars are collected and spent. Rarely does a final budget deviate much from what a governor wants.

Even last year, when lawmakers praised their bipartisan work and independence from Jindal, the state’s operating budget paid for nearly all of what Jindal proposed. Lawmakers just used different sources of financing to get there and added some of their own spending.

After Jindal’s budget recommendations are released, the House Appropriations Committee will hold weeks of hearings to comb through proposals for each agency and determine where they want to make changes.

Disagreements already have cropped up about how the state should use a $163 million surplus from last year and excess collections from a recent tax amnesty period, a figure that reaches $50 million or more.

Ideas range from starting long-stalled highway projects to replenishing the state’s “rainy day” fund or paying down a multibillion-dollar state retirement debt. Others want to use the money to plug holes in next year’s budget, when the state is short an estimated $500 million needed to continue all existing services and account for inflation.

Other possible disputes loom about whether the Jindal administration is following the spirit and intent of a new law pushed by GOP fiscal conservatives in the House to cut down on the patchwork financing the governor has used to stitch together the budget.

The House conservatives, dubbed the “fiscal hawks,” blame the use of such financing maneuvers for causing near-annual budget problems for the state, while Jindal has said they’re needed to stave off deep cuts.

The Jindal administration gave a glimpse to the state’s income forecasting panel of the types of financing it wants to use for next year’s budget, and some of the same types of items that provoked previous howls of complaint were included in the list.

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