Louisiana senators voice concerns over House budget plan, including possible ‘fund sweep’ for TOPS money _lowres

Advocate staff photo by TRAVIS SPRADLING -- The State Capitol and statue of Gov. Huey Pierce Long at the State Capitol in February 2016.

Trying to figure out how to fund state services in the coming year isn't the only budget discussion dominating the state Legislature this year.

From freshmen lawmakers to seasoned veterans, state legislators, prompted by Louisiana's repeated budget crises, have filed dozens of bills that would change the way state government spends its money.

The ideas range from freeing up funds normally restricted from cuts to changing how much money the Legislature can spend to making sure that legislators have more information about the way funds are being used.

The Legislature is quickly approaching its June 8 deadline for forming a budget that will go into effect July 1. (A special session could be held if they don't reach a final decision by the end of this session.)

After vetting from the Louisiana House, which decided to cut funding for the state Department of Health to fully fund the popular Taylor Opportunity Program for Students and adjust other funding levels, the Senate now has its shot at the budget. But in recent days, the talk has turned to how to better position the state for future budgets, and after the failure of Gov. John Bel Edwards' most significant tax proposals, people are eyeing major changes in the budgeting process, rather than the tax side.

"I think the discussion on budget reform, in general, has been a little short-changed," Sen. Sharon Hewitt, R-Slidell, said.

Republicans, particularly those in the House, have repeatedly expressed frustration this session over how the state's budget operates.

House Republicans already are trying to radically change the process by appropriating only 97.5 percent of the funding that has been recognized as being available to spend in the coming year, citing the state's 15 midyear deficits in the past nine years.

"I just find this appropriations process this session kind of a turning point for how we budget and approach the budget," House Speaker Taylor Barras, R-New Iberia, said in a recent meeting with The Advocate editorial board.

Sen. Jim Fannin, a Jonesboro Republican who previously chaired the House Appropriations Committee, has proposed legislation that would allow legislators to spend only 98 percent each year.

Edwards, himself, has said he would be open to such an idea, but he doesn't think the state is in the appropriate fiscal posture to do so this year.

Sen. Jack Donahue, a Mandeville Republican who previously chaired the Senate Finance Committee and still serves as a member of the budgetary panel, has proposed the Legislature each year be given a hypothetical "non-discretionary adjusted standstill budget" in addition to its normal budget recommendation. Under that legislation, which is awaiting review from the House Appropriations Committee, lawmakers would hear what agencies need to keep funding level, outside of some required increases.

"It's information that we need to budget," Donahue said. "I think it's a good idea."

Democrats have largely bristled at suggestions the state is spending too much money and needs to more deeply cut the budget.

"We are a service provider to the people of this state, and there's no question we've struggled to do that over the past nine years," House Speaker Pro Tempore Walt Leger III, D-New Orleans, said in opposition to the budget plan passed by the Republican-controlled House in a near party-line vote this month. "There are no more cuts to make. We've made them all over the past nine years."

Hewitt has proposed legislation, which is slated to be heard in the Senate Finance Committee on Monday, that would establish evidence-based budgeting standards, an idea championed in recent years by the Pew Charitable Trusts.

"The idea is to measure your outcomes so that you can better quantify what you are getting for the money you are investing," Hewitt said.

In theory, Louisiana has a performance-based budgeting system, but the information rarely trickles down to legislators as they vote on the budget each session.

"One of the challenges we always have as legislators is knowing where to put money if we have extra money and where to cut when we have to make cuts," Hewitt said. "We're not as strategic as I think we could be if we had better data."

Hewitt and others also have filed legislation that would eliminate some statutory dedications, or the areas of the budget that state law prioritizes and designates as more difficult to reduce.

"These funds were created over 30 years ago in many cases, so someone 30 years ago made a decision about how we should spend our money today," Hewitt said. "It's not to say that they aren't worthwhile and don't deserve state general funding; I just want us to have a discussion about how they compare to other funding requests and the level of funding they deserve."

Meanwhile, Rep. Stephanie Hilferty, R-Metairie, and Rep. Rick Edmonds, R-Baton Rouge, have each proposed legislation that would require a more thorough review of the dedicated spending.

"My hope is that information would allow it to be less of a subjective choice and more of an objective determination to be made," Hilferty said in explaining her bill to the House Appropriations Committee. It's scheduled to be taken up by the full House on Tuesday.

Follow Elizabeth Crisp on Twitter, @elizabethcrisp.