The Louisiana House “fiscal hawks,” a group of fiscal conservatives who created upheaval in budget debates of prior years, dulled their claws in the recently ended legislative session.
With main members of the group sidetracked by their opposition to Common Core education standards, the lawmakers who stirred up stalemates over financial plans in past sessions were largely silent on this year’s budget work.
The hush came even though the spending plan for the upcoming 2014-15 fiscal year contains similar financing as a budget that caused huge outcries in the House just last year.
“I think this same budget two years ago, maybe even last year, it would have been a huge battle on the floor of the House to get it passed, and for whatever reason, this year that just didn’t happen,” said House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Joel Robideaux, R-Lafayette.
He brokered negotiations with the fiscal hawks in previous years and often votes with them.
A loosely configured group of mainly Republicans, the House fiscal hawks disagree with the use of patchwork financing to stitch together the budget. They prefer an approach that more closely matches expenses to the amount of recurring state income in the treasury.
They blame the use of dollars from property sales, legal settlements and one-time loan repayments for causing near-annual budget problems for the state. The dollars are used to pay for ongoing services, so when they fall away each year, holes appear in the budget.
Gov. Bobby Jindal and a majority of lawmakers who have supported the piecemeal budgeting approach say the dollars are needed to stave off deep cuts to critical services.
In previous years, the fiscal hawks used House rules governing the budget bills to get leverage over how much of the patchwork money could be used and how it could be spent.
Next year’s $24.6 billion budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1 relies on $991 million in funding sources that won’t be available the following year, according to the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Office.
That means when lawmakers return for their 2015 legislative session, they’ll start off in a hole, trying to scrape together dollars to fill gaps.
But the fiscal hawks barely registered a peep during the financial debates. Instead, the budget bills eased to final passage.
Appropriations Committee Chairman Jim Fannin, R-Jonesboro, who handles the budget bills in the House, acknowledged it was one of the easier sessions he’s faced, absent of days of conflict on the House floor and heated disputes between the House and Senate.
This year, Fannin and House Speaker Chuck Kleckley negotiated behind the scenes about changes the House wanted in the budget, and the Senate worked those into the version it passed. Then, with little debate, the House agreed to the Senate’s version of the budget.
Fannin said spending increases for health care services, public colleges and other favored programs muffled most criticism.
“I think it took a lot of the public outcry out of the way, and I think it made it easier for members,” he said.
Many fiscal hawks voted against the final version of next year’s budget.
But the energy of the main deal-brokers of the group shifted to unsuccessful fights against the Common Core education standards being rolled out in Louisiana classrooms.
Meanwhile, an alliance that the fiscal hawks formed with Democrats on last year’s budget created divisions among Republicans in the House and lessened the fiscal hawks’ influence in the chamber.
Reps. Brett Geymann, R-Lake Charles, and Cameron Henry, R-Metairie, were two of the main leaders in the fiscal hawk budget debates of prior years. This session, they were leading failed efforts to try to strip Common Core and its standardized testing from public schools.
But Henry suggested the group’s focus was likely to return to the budget next year because of the nearly $1 billion in financing that will need to be replaced.
“Moving into the next session, we will have to get members engaged early as to how we’re going to fix the problems,” he said.
Melinda Deslatte covers the Louisiana Capitol for The Associated Press.