State Capitol file

Advocate staff photo of the Louisiana State Capitol

With one week until the 2019 legislative session starts, a crucial House panel has begun hearings on Louisiana's $30 billion spending plan for the coming year. Despite a rare stability in the state's finances, things are already off to a rocky start.

“This is a crazy process because of the lack of the executive budget,” Rep. Tony Bacala, a Republican on the House Appropriations Committee, said Monday during the committee's first hearing.

The meeting served largely as a broad overview of the GOP leadership's spending proposal for the coming fiscal year. As drafted, it includes money for teacher pay raises — a priority for Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards this session — but it doesn't cover Edwards' proposed increases in spending on higher education, corrections and general K-12 funding during the budget cycle that begins July 1.

At issue is a roughly $140 million boost in the state's revenue forecast that House Republican leaders repeatedly have blocked. The Revenue Estimating Conference meets April 10 to again consider advice from the state's economists, who say that the projection should be increased.

The 2019 session begins April 8 and must end by June 6. State lawmakers will spend the bulk of the session hashing out a final budget plan. Appropriations hearings will continue this week and next.

The Legislature last year agreed to extend part of a temporary sales tax hike to shore up the state's finances, so the Legislature isn't faced with the prospect of a shortfall or deep cuts, as it has been in the past three years of the current term.

Lawmakers in 2016 temporarily raised the state sales tax from 4 percent to 5 percent. It would have fallen back to 4 percent last year, but the Legislature agreed to extend 0.45 percent of the expiring penny to keep the state's finances afloat.

The Legislature has begun the last three sessions backed up against projected budget shortfalls that prompted discussions of potentially catastrophic cuts to state spending on higher education and health care, including the popular Taylor Opportunity Program for Students, safety-net hospitals and nursing home vouchers. Such shortfalls have prompted seven special sessions since 2016 — all addressing budget instability. But that isn't happening this year. 

In February, Edwards bucked tradition and unveiled a nearly $32 billion executive budget proposal assuming that the revenue estimate will ultimately be updated in his favor.

House Appropriations Chair Cameron Henry, R-Metairie, began this week's hearings with a budget proposal of his own that doesn't include the extra funds.

“Obviously, we’ll incorporate any additional revenue that is recognized as we move through the process," Henry said.

Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne took issue with the committee’s approach, specifically the decision to incorporate some $3 billion in fees and self-generated revenue that annually go into agency budgets that, like the revenue boost, hasn’t been recognized by the REC.

Dardenne accused House leadership of “cherry picking” from forecasts.

“That is a ridiculous inconsistency,” he said.

House Speaker Taylor Barras, a New Iberia Republican who serves on the REC and has been the lone dissenter in rejecting updated projections, defended the approach the committee has taken and his decision to wait before approving an updated estimate. 

"I think it gives us a much better picture," he said. "A lot can change in April and May. It can change quickly." 

House GOP Leader Lance Harris, R-Alexandria, sought a legal opinion on whether Edwards had followed the law when Dardenne presented the recommendation that included extra spending. Attorney General Jeff Landry, a Republican who has frequently feuded with Edwards, said the governor created a "constitutional crisis." The AG's opinion doesn't hold the force of law but could be used to back up a lawsuit.

Barras said he doesn't know of any members who plan to take the issue to court.

Follow Elizabeth Crisp on Twitter, @elizabethcrisp.