The Louisiana House broke into applause Friday after approving a nearly $25 billion compromise plan for funding health care, higher education and other public services.
The proposal, which now goes to the state Senate, represents a bipartisan reworking of the state operating budget that Gov. Bobby Jindal submitted to the Legislature.
The governor’s approach used one-time, or nonrecurring, dollars to pay expenses that must be met year after year. The version passed by the House suspends tax rebates, modifies tax breaks, cuts state government travel and encourages taxpayers to settle their tax disputes with the state.
The House voted 93-5 in favor of House Bill 1, the main budget legislation for the fiscal year that starts in July, after hours of debate. Other legislation in the compromise package includes House Bills 456, 474, 571, 653 and 696. The Senate now will have an opportunity to decide whether to generally keep the proposal intact or make major changes.
“It was a great week for the House of Representatives,” House Speaker Chuck Kleckley said before telling legislators to go home and have a good weekend.
Most legislators made a hasty exit from the House chamber into the rainy weather. They spent roughly seven hours debating the budget legislation, which was a work in progress on the House floor. Several breaks were taken to address wording problems.
During a particularly lengthy break, state Rep. Jeff Arnold, D-New Orleans, piped the theme music to the “Jeopardy” game show into the House chamber.
The new plan is a complicated approach incorporating dollars from a tax amnesty program, tax rebate suspensions, tax break modifications and spending cuts to replace nearly $500 million in one-time, or nonrecurring, dollars that the governor stuffed into the state spending plan.
Legislators also directed dollars toward holding a State Police cadet class for the first time in several years. They found money to repair roads, to lower state debt and to provide services to developmentally disabled people in their homes. Another amendment calls for the governor to pay the $60,000-per-day cost of holding a special session out of his budget to try to override any of his budget vetoes.
At the end of the day, state Rep. Jim Fannin said legislators had added $300 million in spending. State Rep. Brett Geymann disagreed with that assessment, saying legislators reduced operating expenses by $100 million.
Legislators worked in private to craft the state budget alternative during the days leading up to the floor debate. The governor’s approach of partially funding higher education with property sales, legal settlements and other one-time dollars brought Republicans and Democrats together on a compromise plan. Legislators used words like “historic” to characterize the rare flexing of independence against the governor.
“This bipartisan effort has produced a product that is better than the one presented by the administration,” said Geymann, R-Lake Charles.
Not everyone was a fan of the House’s product.
State Rep. Ray Garofalo, R-Meraux, was one of five legislators to vote against HB1.
“A lot of the actions we took today are anti-business. I’m going to stand up for business every opportunity,” he said.
The governor was out of state during at least part of the House’s proceeding. Jindal flew to the East Coast to attend a fundraiser for the New Hampshire Republican state Senate.
In a statement, Jindal said: “I appreciate the House’s hard work and their efforts to come together and pass a budget on to the Senate. We still have some concerns over changes to tax credits and business incentives as well as some increased spending, but today was a step in the right direction.”
The new plan makes at least $63 million in tax break reductions, cuts spending by more than $100 million and relies on state revenue collections improving by $90 million.
Modifications would be made to the motion picture tax credit program. The Jindal administration would be urged to put an emphasis on collecting sales taxes on Internet sales. Vendors would only be able to keep a portion of state sales tax collections on the first $3 million in annual sales.
The most fierce debate came on an amendment to delay the implementation of tax rebates that reward businesses and donations for private school tuition. The proposed suspension sparked fears that South African energy giant Sasol would be affected. The company announced in December that it plans to spend between $16 billion and $21 billion on an ethane cracker and a facility that will convert natural gas to diesel in southwest Louisiana.
State Rep. Gordon Dove, R-Houma, said it would be better to use one-time money than to stop economic development by removing some of the tools that the Jindal administration uses to attract jobs.
“This amendment will kill jobs,” he said.
Tweaks were made to accommodate tuition donations and economic development deals already in motion.
As House Appropriations Committee chairman, Fannin was tasked with shepherding the governor’s proposed budget through the Legislature. Fannin, D-Jonesboro, stayed on the sidelines during compromise talks and cast a “nay” vote on most of the bills that put the planks of the alternative plan in place.
But after the House debate ended Friday, Fannin turned to the chamber and expressed gratitude for living in a democratic society.
“”People ask me how can you keep smiling through this process. I do that because I understand what a process is ... Democracy truly works,” he said.