- Associated Press - Sunday, May 21, 2017

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - In the litany of gripes lodged during annual debates on Louisiana’s budget, one criticism has remained constant.

Lawmakers repeatedly complain that they face too many restrictions on how they can budget and where they can cut, that too many dollars are locked up, protected and dedicated to programs, unable to be reshuffled elsewhere.

“Because we can’t unravel it all, we just Band-Aid over it. I find it very difficult to prioritize funding, when we don’t really know where it all goes,” said Slidell Sen. Sharon Hewitt, a Republican in her second year as a state lawmaker. “What we’re doing right now isn’t working.”

But so far, like in previous years, legislators don’t appear on track to do much about that, to loosen the statutory and constitutional limits that give them less room to maneuver in financing plans.

Nearly all the bills that would unlock some restrictions have been shelved amid fierce opposition from groups who would lose their preferential treatment in the competition for state dollars. One bill is advancing to remove some protections, but its chance of passage appears low.

What seems most likely to emerge is a study group to review the restricted dollars - and similar, previous attempts at review did little to scale back the spending protections.

The protected dollars, called “dedicated funds” in Louisiana Capitol parlance, are locked up by either the state constitution or state laws that dictate how certain dollars must be spent. The dedications were determined by lawmakers in deals over bills, to persuade the public to support spending plans or to protect fees or taxes that people pay for specific services.

In many instances, those decisions often made decades ago haven’t been reviewed or debated again. Louisiana has about 380 dedicated funds created by statute, and another 13 funds protected by the constitution.

“I have been here for about 5 ½ years, and we keep hearing how we are in handcuffs or hamstrung to have any wiggle room for how to address things from year to year. Why would we not have people come to the table periodically to explain why they are entitled to (a protected) flow of funds every year,” said Rep. Rob Shadoin, a Ruston Republican.

Shadoin’s proposal to eliminate constitutional protections for more than $900 million squeaked out of the House Appropriations Committee on a 10-9 vote. Winning final passage would require support from two-thirds of the House and Senate and backing from voters statewide. Shadoin’s suggested that “reading the tea leaves,” he’s not expecting that to happen.

Senators have jettisoned a similar proposal.

Each one of the dedicated or protected funds has a constituency that doesn’t want to lose its favored status and risk the threat of cuts amid Louisiana’s constant financial instability and repeated budget gaps.

Rep. Pat Smith, a Baton Rouge Democrat, opposed Shadoin’s bill, saying voters chose to add the protections in the constitution: “I’m really concerned about opening all of it up.”

Hewitt ran into similar concerns about her proposal aimed at eliminating 176 protected funds in state law and freeing up $830 million for lawmakers to decide how to spend.

“Many of these decisions, these statutes were passed 30 years ago and the landscape has changed quite a bit,” she told the Senate Finance Committee. “I don’t necessarily agree that we should live with those decisions.”

She spent months reviewing each of Louisiana’s dedicated funds against a set of criteria to determine which ones should stay or go. Supporters included business groups, a tea party organization, Louisiana’s higher education commissioner and a government watchdog organization.

Senators said they appreciated the work - but made it clear the bill was doomed.

Senators worried about individual funds that assisted an industry or program in their areas. Agriculture Commissioner Mike Strain spoke in opposition, along with representatives of the state’s racing industry and an organization for the blind that benefits from the fund protections.

“Sometimes change is not easy,” said Finance Chairman Eric LaFleur, a Ville Platte Democrat.

Hewitt voluntarily scrapped her bill amid the opposition, but said she’d like to continue the discussion. That seems to be likely all that will happen. The House has agreed to create a budget subcommittee to review the protected funds and recommend whether to make changes. That bill awaits debate in the Senate.

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EDITOR’S NOTE: Melinda Deslatte has covered Louisiana politics for The Associated Press since 2000. Follow her at http://twitter.com/melindadeslatte

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