“Surplus" has been seldom uttered at the State Capitol over the past decade, but officials say that it appears Louisiana closed out its most recent budget cycle with more than $100 million left over.
A state economist offered several cautions when he broke the news to the panel that gauges the state budget outlook: The figure is unaudited and spending hasn’t been calculated.
"These are preliminary numbers," cautioned Manfred Dix, an economist in the Division of Administration.
But state leaders, who have had to reckon with at least 15 shortfalls in the past decade, are at least eyeing where the estimated $143 million surplus may go.
"We owe the rainy day fund some money," House Speaker Taylor Barras, R-New Iberia, said after the revenue estimating panel received the news that income and general sales tax collections were higher than projected for the budget that ended June 30.
The conservative, anti-tax Americans for Prosperity has also called on the Legislature to put the money into the state's reserves.
As Baton Rouge reels from recent high-profile tragedies, Gov. John Bel Edwards says he's str…
Under state law, budget surpluses can only be used toward one-time expenses, including replenishing the rainy day fund, certain projects or paying down debt. It can't be used to address the looming "fiscal cliff" the state faces for the budget that begins July 2018.
Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, mentioned the surplus during his monthly call-in radio show Wednesday, but he didn't say where he would like to see the money go.
His deputy chief of staff, Richard Carbo, said Thursday that Edwards and Barras haven't discussed what to do with the possible surplus, but repaying the rainy day fund "is an idea the governor is open to exploring" and something he'd be willing to consider.
Louisiana has faced at least 15 mid-year budget shortfalls in the past decade, meaning the revenues frequently lagged behind what the Revenue Estimating Conference had projected. Earlier this year, state legislators agreed by mail vote to tap into the state's reserves to help plug the hole with about $100 million from the "rainy day" fund to meet the most recent projected shortfall in the same budget that has ended with an apparent surplus.
Citing the repeated gaps in projections, House leaders had rallied around the idea of budgeting under the projection and stood so firmly behind the plan that the Legislature entered a one-week special session to finalize a budget plan.
"The unpredicableness in all of this is taxpayer behavior," Barras said.
Edwards and Barras met at the Capitol on Tuesday to discuss the coming year's budget and possible options for addressing an estimated $1 billion-plus shortfall the state faces when a temporary sales tax increase expires in June.
Edwards would have to call a special session to give lawmakers the ability to turn to taxes and most other revenue options that cannot be taken up during the regular session in even-numbered years.
Edwards, who has spent recent weeks traveling the state to discuss the budget with business leaders, legislators and local officials, has said he won't call a special session unless he believes that the Legislature has a viable plan.
During the radio show, Edwards expressed optimism about the progress of ongoing talks.
"We're not there yet, but I believe we will get there," he said.
Barras said he also is engaged in active conversations about possible solutions.
"We're in the information gathering season," he said.
After Barras expressed optimism last week about the prospects of reaching a solution by January, House Appropriations Chair Cameron Henry uploaded a video to Facebook in which he criticized the governor and called for deeper cuts address the shortfall.
Henry, R-Metairie, didn't return a call for comment on Thursday regarding the potential surplus.
Barras said that he wasn't bothered by Henry's video.
"I don't think any of the comments were new," Barras said. "I don't think it's any secret that this Appropriations Committee has questioned many departments."
Barras said he doesn't think that cutting $1 billion from the budget would be feasible because many areas of the budget are protected from cuts, leaving higher education and health care most vulnerable.
"That would be a difficult exercise," he said, noting that no members have approached him with a plan for $1 billion in cuts.
But he said he also doesn't think that it would be reasonable to raise revenue by $1 billion, suggesting instead that it would likely be a combination of the two.
"$1.5 billion in cuts and $1.5 billion in revenue are large swings," Barras said.