After weeks of questions and concerns, worried Louisiana legislators got their first crack Tuesday at Gov. Bobby Jindal’s proposed budget.
Perhaps nervous about how they are being asked to fill a $1.6 billion deficit — or be forced to make deeps cuts in services during an election year — legislators started their department-by-department review of the budget by grilling a Jindal staffer on whether the governor’s personal staff would suffer as much as the rest of state government.
“How has the Governor’s Office shared in the burden?” asked state Rep. Katrina R. Jackson, D-Monroe, as the House Appropriations Committee took up House Bill 1 – Jindal’s $24.6 billion spending plan. This is the measure that lawmakers will debate for the next three months and that, eventually, will become government’s legal authority to spend taxpayer dollars for the fiscal year beginning July 1.
Jackson and other legislators repeatedly have voiced doubts about Jindal’s multi-stepped schemes to raise enough money to cover fewer services while being “revenue neutral,” that is not raising taxes without a corresponding cut in spending.
The governor plans to raise about $526 million by revamping popular tax exemption programs by keeping the monies that exceed the actual tax liability.
Another idea would allow universities to charge additional fees that would be credited on students’ (or their parents’) tax returns. This would allow, under Jindal’s revenue-neutral dictates, to increase Louisiana’s 36-cent cigarette tax to 83 cents.
Each contingency in the Jindal plan would need bills, many of which haven’t been filed yet, and legislative approval would be needed. Higher education is looking at a $533 million reduction in its state funding, instead of $211 million that Jindal proposed; and health care could lose $422 million, if the ancillary legislation isn’t passed.
“The budget is way different than what we’ve seen in the past,” said House Appropriations Chairman Jim Fannin, the Winnsboro Republican whose name goes on the state budget bill.
“It’s kind of like having a skunk by the tail,” Fannin said.
First up was the Executive Department, which includes the Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, the Inspector General, the Division of Administration and the Louisiana Public Defenders Board, among others.
Stepping up first, the Governor’s Office: which is recommended to have a budget of $9.9 million for the 2016 fiscal year. That’s down $1.8 million from the current fiscal year.
The Governor’s Office would eliminate four vacant posts, leaving 75 authorized positions.
But, as Republican state Rep. John Schroder, of Covington, pointed out, those jobs were funded by grants that are no longer available. He asked Demetrious Allen, the governor’s office budget manager, what would happen if another 10 percent was cut.
Allen said employees would have to be laid off. “We really run a tight ship,” Allen said.
“You do?” responded Schroder. “Sounds to me like you drew the short straw.”
Fannin wanted to know about travel. The proposal trims $36,000, leaving $11,900 for the spending year that begins July 1. Jindal leaves office in January.
The questions came: Where did they go? What was the purpose of the trip?
“You seem a little bit confused,” Fannin told Allen. “You need to be able to sit at the table and tell me how traveling out of state benefits taxpayers.”
Stafford Palmieri, Jindal’s assistant chief of staff, hustled into the hearing room and took a seat at the witness table, saying she could answer questions about travel. She said the amount was primarily for staff travel, rather than for the governor, and was for expenses like mileage. Any out of state travel for seminars and training is paid for by the group sponsoring the event, she said.
Under questioning by state Rep. Walt Leger III, D-New Orleans, Palmieri said the Department of Public Safety, which oversees the Louisiana State Police covers the cost of security and to travel within the state on the helicopters. (Jindal took 45 trips on helicopters within the state in 2013 and 2014, according to State Police records.)
Leger also expressed concern when State Public Defender Jay Dixon was asked about cuts that would lower his agency’s appropriation to $33.4 million. His agency assists the state’s 42 local offices that provide lawyers when criminal defendants cannot afford one.
Already offices in the judicial districts that serve East Baton Rouge Parish, the Felicianas and four others have restricted services because their budgets aren’t enough to pay for the services.
In Baton Rouge, the public defender’s office lost six lawyers, but has hiring freeze. In East and West Feliciana, the office eliminated an investigator and money to pay interpreters and experts.
Dixon said courts could order private lawyers to handle cases or could set up a waiting list. “We need a reliable and stable and adequate funding source that will not fluctuate from year to year,” he said.
Republican state Rep. Johnny Berthelot, of Gonzales, said the state inspector general is doing much the same work at the legislative auditor, the attorney general and the Louisiana State Police. He questioned the need of spending $1.9 million on the agency.
Inspector General Stephen Street said his investigators had successfully uncovered fraud in the state’s film tax credit program.
The Appropriations Committee hearings continue Wednesday with testimony about the proposed cuts to the budgets of statewide elected officials, some of whom were forced to lay off employees.
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