State Capitol file

Advocate staff photo of the Louisiana State Capitol

The panel that decides how much money the state can spend remains at an impasse over efforts to improve state revenue projections, after House Speaker Taylor Barras blocked the third attempt to boost the forecast on Thursday.

“I just feel that there’s a good bit of uncertainty,” Barras, R-New Iberia, said during the Revenue Estimating Conference meeting. “I think we need to be realistic about how the taxpayer will react, and that’s something that’s hard to put on paper.”

Barras was the only member of the four-person Revenue Estimating Conference to reject economists’ updates to reflect a rosier outlook than they gave nearly a year ago. It was the third time in as many months that House Republican leaders successfully blocked Gov. John Bel Edwards' administration's attempt to fund about $43 million in items budgeted under condition of an upgrade to the state forecast this year and give the governor an improved outlook before finalizing his executive budget proposal for the coming year.

All other members of the revenue panel, Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne, LSU economist Jim Richardson and Senate President John Alario, R-Westwego, voted in favor of the latest projections, but REC votes must be unanimous, so Barras' vote against blocked the maneuver, as he did last month and his proxy did a month earlier.

Dardenne, Edwards’ chief budget architect, took Thursday’s meeting to outline 12 points that he said back up the updated forecast, as recommended by the administration’s economist and the Legislature’s economist.

“It’s an injustice to the members of the Legislature and the public, because it’s a façade,” Dardenne said. “We’re just playing a game right now by not recognizing the reality that we face.”

The Edwards administration and others who support the upgrade have speculated that House Republicans, who are frequent foes of the Democratic governor, are rejecting the improved outlook for political reasons — a characterization Barras has rejected.

"This is not to be antagonistic," Barras said. "There is a lot of noise in these numbers. I would be more comfortable making this decision closer to the end of the fiscal year."

More than $43 million in budget priorities for the budget that ends June 30 has been held up in the stalemate, including pay raises for corrections officers and money paid to local sheriffs who house state inmates. Also in limbo is $10 million to open a new youth offender facility in Bunkie that has been repeatedly delayed because of funding concerns.

Barras, again, also blocked an attempt to boost the projection for the next budget cycle.

The move could complicate the drafting of Edwards' executive budget proposal that will be released next month.

Edwards, a Democrat who is seeking re-election this year, has been an outspoken proponent for pay raises for K-12 teachers in the coming year. Without the additional revenue recognized, his executive document that kick-starts the budgeting process may have to reflect cuts to cover it.

“We shouldn’t have to present to the Legislature an executive budget that represents fiction instead of reality,” Dardenne said.

He also argued that an update this month would be more accurate than the current projection.

“As we sit right now, six months into the fiscal year, we have yet to approve a forecast for the year,” Dardenne said. “We’re still relying on data that is nine months old.”

“This is the most current information available to us,” he added.

The economists had recommended adjusting the budget outlook to reflect about $130 million more in revenue the state is on track to collect before the budget ends June 30.

“I’m concerned about the timing of us doing it,” Barras said.

The Joint Legislative Budget Committee, which includes senators and House members from the chambers' spending panels, would ultimately get to say which items on the contingency budget would be funded if more revenue is recognized.

“This is a Revenue Estimating Conference. Our job is to determine the revenue for the state of Louisiana so the Legislature can determine how it will be spent,” Dardenne said.

Follow Elizabeth Crisp on Twitter, @elizabethcrisp.