Louisiana Spotlight: Another budget crisis, more financial uncertainty likely again next year _lowres

Associated Press star reporter Melinda Deslatte in Baton Rouge, La., Monday, April 13, 2015. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

Prohibitions against considering taxes in the current legislative session haven’t slowed all efforts to raise revenue to patch together next year’s budget.

Statewide elected officials, state boards and agencies that have taken — or are threatened with — cuts are seeking to boost user fees, increase penalties for regulatory violations or levy new charges on people and businesses who use services or require oversight.

The dozens of proposals add up to millions of dollars.

That money could fill at least some gaps in next year’s budget, which is estimated to be short $750 million to continue all services and programs in the year that begins July 1.

House Speaker Taylor Barras, R-New Iberia, is sponsoring a House-approved bill to establish a new fee on ground ambulance providers that could generate $4 million a year in new federal financing for the state health department.

Agriculture Commissioner Mike Strain is pushing a bill that would give his department a 7 percent cut of the revenue from sales of medical marijuana, when the one state-sanctioned grower, yet to be chosen, starts selling medicinal pot — plus licensing and inspection fees. Applicants for pharmacies to dispense medical marijuana are proposed for a different $5,000 fee, paid to the Louisiana Board of Pharmacy.

Inspection and supervision fees for towing companies and public utilities are proposed to grow larger. Pipeline safety inspection fees would be bumped up under another bill. A fee hike is sought on prepaid cell phone services for access to 911 systems.

The health department is seeking more than $6 million annually in new and increased fees for food and beverage vendors at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, for sewer systems, for retail food permits, for its drinking water inspection program and more.

Even burials at state veterans cemeteries are included in the fee hike frenzy. The Department of Veterans Affairs would be able to charge $745 each for the burials, with waivers for financial hardship, under a bill awaiting debate on the House floor.

Agencies say the fees they’re seeking to charge or boost higher only cover the costs of providing the service — and often not fully.

When he faced pushback on the medical marijuana fees, Strain said he can’t afford to do the required inspections, lab testing and oversight without new money. He estimates the work will cost his agency between $500,000 and $750,000 a year.

“We’re not trying to make a cash cow of this,” Strain told lawmakers.

During discussion of a list of public health fee hikes, Rep. Rogers Pope, R-Denham Springs, raised concerns.

“We’re going to impact a lot of people in this state with additional costs. Call it tax, fee, I don’t care, the people are going to pay this additional cost.”

Rep. Julie Stokes, R-Kenner, sponsor of the health department bill, defended the charges.

“The vast majority of these still do not cover the costs of providing the service,” she told the House health committee, which backed the fee hikes.

Department of Environmental Quality officials had similar arguments as they pushed a bill to increase their fees for groundwater, hazardous waste, solid waste and underground storage tank regulation. The agency estimated the measure would raise more than $9 million a year.

Rep. Jack Montoucet, D-Crowley, worried the fee increases when coupled with regulatory charges from the fire marshal, the health department and local inspectors could harm mom-and-pop businesses.

“You stack ’em one on top the other and you keep on going,” Montoucet said. “In many of the towns, our shoe stores, our clothing stores, our drugs stores, they’re all shutting down. We’ve got to be careful about continuing to add fees to these people because before we know it we’re going to only have the Wal-Marts.”

That fee bill, too, advanced to the full House for consideration.

Rep. Cameron Henry, R-Metairie, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, isn’t banking on the millions from the fee bills to arrive just yet, however.

“You can only count on those once the bills are passed and are signed into law,” he said.

Melinda Deslatte covers Louisiana politics for The Associated Press. Follow her at http://twitter.com/melindadeslatte.