Legislature enters all-too-familiar budget debate

Familiar budget debate continues at capitol

BATON ROUGE, La. (WAFB) - For the second year, lawmakers on the Revenue Estimating Conference could not agree on a forecast for how much money the state will collect from taxing Louisianans this year.

Without a revised estimate, lawmakers are likely to enter session without knowing how much money they can spend. The REC last updated its projection in April.

“This is like telling the University of Oklahoma to prepare for the LSU Tiger offense based on what they knew in April of 2019,” Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne said. “Not to look at any game film this year that reflects the reality of a 13-0 season.”

Lawmakers went through the same exercise last year, and Gov. John Bel Edwards chose not to submit a formal budget that would have had to include outdated, lower revenue. He instead submitted a “proposed budget" as a guiding document that behaved more like a wish-list.

Lawmakers eventually recognized the projected revenue during session and achieved most of their funding goals, including pay raises for teachers.

“We tried that last year? Where did it get us? Absolutely nowhere,” Dardenne said. “We’ve seen this movie before. It’s like groundhog day.”

Immediately, the latest scrap will prevent the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority from starting a project in Plaquemines Parish. It will also delay work on a ferry project in New Orleans.

This go around, House Republican leadership objected to the adoption of the forecast because of a spat between Treasurer John Schroder and, ultimately, Edwards.

Schroder is withholding roughly $20 million in unclaimed property that the legislature had earmarked for state services in prior years. Lawmakers have budgeted with that cash assuming an influx of forgotten royalties and tax returns would replenish the pot.

“No one who has come forward to be paid their money has ever been told, ‘There’s not enough money to pay you,'” Dardenne said. “They never will. There will always be enough money in that fund to be able to make payments."

“We would probably assume that, at one moment, not everyone who’s owed that $800 million (total) is going to show up and say, ‘Please give us our money,’” Rep. Cameron Henry, R-Metairie, retorted. “It’s still not our money.”

The Edwards administration says Schroder does not have the constitutional authority to withhold the money, but said the state should make every effort to return the money expeditiously.

Henry, filling in for speaker Taylor Barras, was the lone holdout on the four-person committee that must be unanimous to adopt a new forecast.

"It's a disservice to the people of the state to endure another year - several months - of meaningless and fruitless debate driven solely by a desire to fight with the governor," Dardenne said.

"It's time, as you can see in the legislature on both sides, that we start doing things differently. This is one of those steps," Rep. Cameron Henry of the Republican leadership said.

Session begins in March.

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