Louisiana lawmakers on Tuesday kicked off the process of crafting next year's budget, with several Republicans pushing back against calls for more revenue to fund state services.
Hearings on specific state agencies will continue through next week. The legislative session begins April 10.
Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, has called on lawmakers to work on budget stability in the coming session. He's expected to unveil a series of tax proposals on Wednesday that he says will help shore up the state's finances.
Edwards has called the Legislature into three special sessions to address the budget since taking office in January 2016. Despite giving legislators the ability in those sessions to cut spending, few significant cutbacks have made it into the state's permanent structure.
But on Tuesday, House Republicans signaled their continued resistance to looking for new money and instead repeatedly suggested that the state needs to focus on cuts.
State Sen. JP Morrell was hopping mad.
"This is really about trying to balance what's going on as a reaction to our economy in Louisiana," said Rep. John Schroder, R-Covington. "We're going to get to a point where, if we don't believe we're going to get more income, how are we going to deal with what we have?"
The House Appropriations Committee met for seven hours on Tuesday to hear from Edwards' administration and various agency heads.
Edwards is required to propose a balanced budget. Without any action on taxes at this point, Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne said the spending plan is about $440 million short of what would be needed to maintain the state's current services.
Dardenne said that could change if the state sees increased revenue collections due to growth in the economy or if the Legislature acts to curb tax credits or collect more money.
If the state receives no additional revenue, Edwards' budget recommends a 2 percent across-the-board cut to most state agencies. The state Department of Health would absorb the same cut it received this year; and higher education would be cut $18 million.
The state would need an additional $83 million to fully fund the popular Taylor Opportunity Program for Students scholarships in the coming year. Edwards has also prioritized a pay raise for state employees that would require an additional $24 million.
Dardenne said the raises are meant to help bring down the state worker turnover rate, which is currently 17 percent annually. The rate of turnover for cadets in the state Department of Corrections, who work with inmates is 125 percent, he added.
"They can't keep these folks working," Dardenne said. "(If) they get any better opportunity, they're going to take it."
Gov. John Bel Edwards is pushing back the public release of his tax overhaul package, probab…
But some members of the budget-drafting panel took issue with the administration's attempt to prioritize pay raises, potentially at the expense of higher taxes.
Rep. Blake Miguez, R-Erath, said that his Acadiana district, which hugs the Louisiana coast line, has suffered as the oil and gas industry has slowed in the state.
"People are devastated," he said. "They've been laid off and it's just difficult to bring that message home: 'I need to raise your taxes because state employees need a pay increase.'"
House Appropriations Chairman Cameron Henry, R-Metairie, said he thinks members would rather spend less than the state's forecast to bring in next year so that it won't be hit by another mid-year shortfall.
The state has had at least 15 mid-year deficits in the past nine years.
"It's just a mindset that I think folks seem to be leaning toward now," Henry said of the possibility that the state Legislature could spend only 95 to 98 percent of the money available to it, while leaving cuts elsewhere.
Rep. Rick Edmonds, R-Baton Rouge, said that the state's recent trend of not meeting its revenue projections is frustrating to the process.
"We consistently start high with a number we can't fund and then we fall short," he said. "I think we've got to reflect on the real numbers that we have."