It's high season for budget-making in city halls, including Baton Rouge and New Orleans, but it's almost always budget season at the State Capitol, even if Louisiana's fiscal year does not begin until July 1. The cities work on a more normal calendar-year schedule.
That state budget fixation is particularly the case this year at the capitol because of the failure of the 2017 Legislature to agree on tax reform measures that are almost universally accepted as needed.
It's worrisome that lawmakers at least in public are no nearer an agreement on the tax changes, despite a series of public and private meetings over the summer and fall. We see a real problem in folks not recognizing the scope of the disaster if deadlock continues to be the agenda for 2018.
Nick Albares, policy analyst for the liberal Louisiana Budget Project, produced a useful primer about the numbers. While his group has specific policies in mind that are probably different than what would be embraced by the more conservative House GOP leadership, the Cliff's Notes version of his analysis remains useful.
He implicitly criticizes the public focus on what is unquestionably a big problem, the expiration of a "temporary" sales tax that runs through the end of this fiscal year. At about $880 million a year, it's a huge challenge to lose that kind of money in a general fund of less than $10 billion.
Also, Albares commented, "The temporary removal of certain exemptions from the sales tax brought in $227 million, while the reduction of corporate exclusions and deductions yielded $122 million. Other smaller changes add up to the remaining $150 million of the expiring revenue."
While that is true, the state's budget-builders are required to present to legislators the "continuation budget," which is this year's budget with inflation factors and adjustments needed in the new year, such as an increase in dollars because more kids are in public schools.
HIs conclusion: "The gap between projected revenue for the 2019 fiscal year and projected expenditures is more than $1.5 billion."
The good news: A gradually improving state economy is generating more revenue, just not nearly enough to plug the hole.
Legislators often wave aside the continuation budget as funny money; in many years, some of the inflationary costs are basically unfunded by the Legislature, forcing internal cuts by state departments.
Again, it's a worry if legislators get blase about the continuation budget numbers. "Accounting for continuation costs is standard and proper practice," Albares said. "It simply accounts for what’s needed to carry on all existing programs at the current level of service including the increased cost of services or materials due to inflation and workload increases."
Those would be prudent adjustments for just about any business planning its budget for the new year. But if the political disagreements so rife in the State Capitol in 2017 continue, any funding of those increases may be difficult, including essential expenditures like the allotments for school children.
We don't know what the "real" number is, but we are certain that the continuation budget numbers don't mean zero in terms of more money for needed services in the new year.