Lawmakers eye efforts to free up ‘statutory dedications’ _lowres

Advocate staff photo by TRAVIS SPRADLING -- Desks and voting machines sit at the ready in the House Chamber Thursday afternoon at the State Capitol, as staff and legislators prepare for the start of the Special Session on Sunday.

As the Louisiana Legislature grapples with a $900 million funding shortfall in the current budget and $2 billion in the budget that lies ahead beginning July 1, lawmakers are seeing an opportunity to tap into some of the funding that has been set aside for pet projects over the years.

In the 2014 fiscal year, so-called “budgetary dedications” took up about 16 percent of the state budget — about $4.3 billion, according to a recent analysis from the Legislative Auditor’s Office. About half of that was in “statutory dedications,” meaning money the Legislature has put to the side through measures passed in the State Capitol over the years. The rest was dedicated through constitutional changes approved by Louisiana voters.

On Monday, members of the House Appropriations Committee began the process of unlocking Legislature-backed “statutory dedications” to give themselves more flexibility, but many still see hurdles ahead for the effort, which still faces several steps on its path to legislative approval.

The first bill the House budget panel attempted to pass quickly devolved into a push for certain programs to keep their protected funding, and the fight is likely to intensify as the process continues and more special interests seek to save their dedicated funding streams.

Statutory dedications include money for marketing and tourism efforts, improvements to state parks, agriculture research in specialized areas and wildlife conservation efforts, among other special interests. There also are funds that support programs like the Drug Abuse Resistance Education in schools and programs for autism.

“There are some very good things in these dedications. There’s not a single member of this body who has any issue with putting money toward the DARE program,” said Rep. Chris Broadwater, R-Hammond, who has been advocating for removal of certain statutory protections.

Both his bill and another that passed the House committee would eliminate certain funds that have been carved out of the budget and redirect that money to the general fund, where lawmakers can more freely dole it out as necessary.

State Sen. Bret Allain, R-Franklin, recently remarked in a Joint Legislative Budget Committee hearing that he would like to see a constitutional amendment to remove constitutional protections, as well, but such a bill has yet to be heard at the Capitol, a week into a special legislative session that ends March 9.

As for the statutory dedications, more than $2 billion of the state’s annual budget has been set aside for 344 funds. Several of those are linked to direct revenue sources or lawsuits and can’t be touched. But for others, lawmakers see the budget crunch as an opportunity for re-evaluation.

“Fundamentally, we have a problem with the budget and how we appropriate money,” said Rep. John Schroder, R-Covington. “We are the ones who have to somehow reform this budget process. It’s broken. We have too much dedicated money.”

Those who support the overhaul efforts say the state has been left with just $2.9 billion in untapped money to fund the state’s needs, when federal dollars and self-generated monies are removed from the total $25 billion budget.

That has left higher education and health care vulnerable in what has become a yearly cycle of budget shortfalls, tied largely to slipping oil prices and slowed tax collections.

One bill that passed the House Appropriations Committee on Monday was amended to put some of the carve-outs back in place. The other was passed as presented but will likely face amendment attempts as more lawmakers get to leave their marks on the bill as it moves through the Capitol.

“The house has the option to look at both on the floor and see how things progress,” said House Appropriations Chairman Cameron Henry, R-Metairie. “We need to have as many options as we can.”

Louisiana saw a run on dedicated funds in the 1990s, with 162 put on the books from 1991 to 2000. In the three decades prior to that, the state had only agreed to 62 dedications total, according to the legislative auditor’s analysis.

The auditor’s report found several problems that the Legislature faces when dealing with dedications, including “constituent influence, a lack of criteria to determine the return on investment of each dedication, and a lack of transparency and accountability for how dedicated funds are spent.”

Supporters of the effort to “undedicate” funding said opening up the funds wouldn’t necessarily mean that protected programs would no longer be funded: Instead, they would have to state their cases.

“That’s a discussion that ought to be happening every time we appropriate money, rather than it happening outside this process,” said Broadwater. “It does remove the argument that, ‘This is my money, and you can’t touch it.’ ”

Some legislators have been skeptical of any effort to strip protections for programs that are important to their communities, though.

State Rep. Charles Chaney, R-Rayville, said he understood that, in theory, worthy programs would still be funded. “I would like to think that works in actuality,” he said.

But several others encouraged the measures to move along. Both bills still have long roads ahead of them with legislators likely angling to protect certain programs, and there are fewer than three weeks left in the session.

“You see what happens when you try to undedicate them,” Schroder said after several items were raised to be brought back under protection. “You either have to do all or none. I haven’t heard a good argument yet for why any of this should stay in.”

Rep. Kirk Talbot, R-River Ridge, reminded legislators that any carve-outs would leave a smaller piece of the budget freed up.

“All we’re asking here is to undedicate it,” he said. “If it’s a great cause, then we are going to protect it.”

Rep. Steve Pylant, R-Winnsboro, said he had been asked to protect DARE funding but didn’t think that would be necessary.

“We’re tearing a bill down from what it was intended to do,” he said of the amendments.

“(DARE) is something very dear to my heart and something that I wouldn’t want to cut,” he said. “I think the program is worthy enough that it can stand on its own two legs.”

Follow Elizabeth Crisp on Twitter, @elizabethcrisp.

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