- Associated Press - Monday, December 10, 2018

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - Louisiana House Speaker Taylor Barras refused Monday to budge on boosting state income projections in a continuing stalemate with Gov John Bel Edwards’ administration, even after economists proposed smaller, more conservative adjustments.

The Republican House leader voted against the other three members of the Revenue Estimating Conference, a move that blocked the changes because forecast modifications require a unanimous vote. The projections determine how much money lawmakers and the governor can spend each year.

Monday’s vote was the second time in two weeks that House GOP leaders stymied the Democrat Edwards’ push to increase the forecast to pay for a $43 million list of spending items, mainly on corrections, juvenile justice and local sheriffs. Lawmakers approved the list earlier this year - but only if the state’s tax collections come in better than expected.

Economists for both the Legislature and the administration said that’s exactly what’s happening. They recommended the Revenue Estimating Conference bump up the forecast for the budget year that ends June 30 and the next budget year, describing the move as supported by tax collections and economic modeling.

But Barras, a New Iberia banker, said such forecast increases are too soon, though he acknowledged he anticipates such an increase eventually will be warranted. He wants to wait until later in the budget year, citing uncertainty in oil prices and corporate tax collections.

“There just seem to be a number of concerns that we’re taking a big leap of faith,” Barras said. “I am not one to make these decisions easily.”

Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne, the governor’s chief budget adviser; Senate President John Alario, a Republican; and LSU economist Jim Richardson voted to increase the forecast.

Dardenne suggested Barras was blocking the adjustments to try to keep from funding the $43 million list, which includes money owed to sheriffs for housing state inmates in their local jails, dollars to open additional dorms in a new youth prison facility in Bunkie and money for corrections department operations.

Stalling the forecast changes also could create problems for Edwards’ plan to propose a teacher pay raise in his budget recommendations for next year. The governor was expecting improved tax collection projections to cover the raise in the budget proposal he’ll unveil in February.

The $43 million list could be funded later in the year when the numbers are more certain, Barras replied, and the teacher pay raise could be added when lawmakers work on next year’s budget in the 2019 legislative session.

Alario said lawmakers should be pleased the state’s income forecast is improving, after a decade of budget shortfalls. If more revisions are needed, he said, the forecasting conference can adjust projections again.

“There’s a lot of checks and balances along the way,” Alario said.

Barras said he’d rather be cautious than overestimate income and require lawmakers to make budget cuts before the fiscal year ends June 30. He called plunges in oil prices “incredibly alarming.”

Because of the concerns about steep drops recently in per-barrel oil prices, economists tweaked their forecasts - though they said they didn’t believe such conservative adjustments were needed. With those changes to oil prices, the economists proposed boosting this year’s forecast between $126 million and $138 million and next year’s forecast between $67 million and $126 million.

Barras said he’d prefer to wait until March to make any changes, though Dardenne expects another Revenue Estimating Conference meeting to be called in January or February.


Follow Melinda Deslatte on Twitter at http://twitter.com/melindadeslatte

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