Bill to give attorney general budget autonomy put on hold, may not get vote _lowres

Advocate staff photo by TRAVIS SPRADLING -- Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry speaks, answering questions from House members, Thursday, May 12, 2016 at the State Capitol. After a nearly three-hour debate and testimony from, the House voted 69-26 to advance a bill that would fund the Attorney General's Office separately from the rest of the state budget.

Legislation that would have given Louisiana’s Attorney General autonomy to decide how to spend the money appropriated to his agency was set aside late Wednesday night and may not get a vote for the rest of the legislative session.

Metairie Republican Rep. Cameron Henry, who as chairman of the House Appropriations Committee has his name on House Bill 1, the state’s spending plan for next fiscal year, said his goal was to start the conversation about the possibility that statewide-elected officials, like the Attorney General, should decide on their own how best spend the money appropriated to their agencies.

“Give me the autonomy to run it like a business for a year,” Attorney General Jeff Landry asked the Senate Finance Committee that was considering Henry’s House Bill 105.

Landry said running the agency like a private business would allow him more easily realize savings of state dollars.

“It’s a concept that needs to be looked at, maybe next year,” said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Eric LaFleur, D-Ville Platte, before moving that the panel “hold” House Bill 105 without taking a vote.

A “hold” is a sort of limbo the Finance Committee has used on other measures during this session, particularly those that would add to the state budget. The House-passed bill isn’t dead, but without a vote by the committee, it can’t move to the next step.

This legislative session ends a week from Monday on June 6.

Budget autonomy is another issue on which Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards and Republican Landry have found themselves at odds. They also have squared off on social issues and on how to handle coastal lawsuits.

Edwards has said he would likely veto HB105 if it got to his desk.

Henry said his measure is aimed at looking for better ways to handle taxpayer dollars. None of the statewide elected officials asked him for their own budget. But he heard several of them praise the concept.

“I said, ‘It’s a good idea, let’s give a whirl’,” Henry said.

There’s a problem with the state constitution, which binds the governor to submit a spending plan for executive branch agencies that details how public money will be spent, said Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne.

“We should have a single appropriations bill,” Dardenne said.

The governor’s proposal is the base from which legislators cobble together a budget that dictates how much can be spent on government programs and services. House Bill 1, when it becomes law, is the budget measure that legally authorizes state government to spend taxpayer dollars during a fiscal year that runs from July 1 to June 30.

HB1 has passed the House and is being considered by the Senate, which likely will make considerable changes before voting on it late next week. Historically, the final document is then negotiated before the final vote.

Dardenne said the Edwards administration already asks the heads of state agencies to identify where spending cuts need to be made, which programs could get by with less money and which services might need more. The administration gives agency executives — appointed ones as well as those elected by voters — as much deference as possible in deciding where the money in their agency should be spent.

“This is friction that hasn’t existed,” Dardenne said.

Henry mentioned Agriculture Commissioner Mike Strain, who had earlier testified on a different matter.

Strain has complained for years that if one of his offices had money left over, he couldn’t just transfer it to another project that needed funding. Under the law, he must go to the governor to ask permission from the Legislature to move the money using an instrument called a BA-7. Under the Jindal administration, Strain has said, his request for a BA-7 was routinely refused and the administration shifted that money into the state general fund to pay for other state expenses.

LaFleur said the oversight was necessary and often came about because of abuses.

For instance, LaFleur noted that Landry just bought 37 new vehicles. While he has no problem with Landry’s transactions, the purchase of cars and trucks over the years often were fraught with problems, such as when an insurance commissioner used state dollars to buy a high-end pick-up truck for his personal use.

Landry responded that was good example. The rules and practices set into the system over time almost funnels decision making into a single outcome. The old vehicles needed to be replaced. But assistant attorney generals need to travel to court hearings and legal investigations around the state. Other options were considered but couldn’t be implemented because the system in place allows little flexibility, Landry said.

Follow Mark Ballard on Twitter @MarkBallardCNB.

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