Louisiana legislators are gearing up for another attempt at unlocking parts of the state budget that have been dedicated to pet causes over the years and largely protected from cuts.
"Every time we've brought up statutory dedications in the Legislature, we've met a load of resistance," Rep. Rick Edmonds told a crowd at the Republican Party of East Baton Rouge Parish's Ronald Reagan Newsmaker Luncheon on Tuesday. "We've failed to do this."
Edmonds, R-Baton Rouge, is leading a new effort to review each of the state's 344 "statutory dedications" through the Joint Budget Committee subcommittee on statutorily dedicated funds that he co-chairs. The subcommittee expects to meet after the Joint Budget Committee's meeting later this month.
Edmonds said it is early in the process, but he expects that members will go over each dedication one-by-one, 50 per meeting.
About $2 billion of the state's $26 billion budget funnels down through “statutory dedications” — money the Legislature has put to the side through measures passed in the State Capitol over the years. The dedicated funding streams include money for marketing and tourism efforts, improvements to state parks, agriculture research in specialized areas and wildlife conservation efforts, among other special interests.
Edmonds and other lawmakers who have dealt with repeated cycles of budget shortfalls and now face a looming $1 billion "fiscal cliff" when a temporary sales tax hike expires next year, have been increasingly eyeing the perennial issue of carve outs as a way of giving more flexibility in state spending. The rollback of dedications, supporters say, would allow lawmakers to better prioritize the state's spending.
Critics argue that it provides uncertainty for programs that rely on those funds.
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"I promised my district we would look at these statutory dedications," he said.
It could prove to be an uphill battle. An attempt to rein in the carve-outs earlier this year set off an avalanche of proposed amendments that aimed to protect legislators' pet issues. Legislation that would have let voters decide the fate of the statutory dedications ultimately fell fewer than a dozen votes shy of passing the Republican-controlled House.
And that was at a time when lawmakers were already being urged to consider ways to overhaul spending and ward off the looming fiscal cliff.
Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat who has spent the past several weeks meeting with business leaders and local officials across the state about the budget, appears open to evaluating dedicated funds.
"Some of those discussions have happened during his statewide tour of roundtable discussions with local elected officials and business leaders and even during previous legislative sessions," Edwards spokesman Tucker Barry said.
But Barry also cautioned that the approach isn't as easy as it may sound.
"Every dedication funds a certain set of services that have a set of constituencies behind it," he said. "The Legislature will have to make difficult decisions on whether to find funding for vital and popular services, either through dedication of revenues or the general fund."
Edmonds said he hears one thing from constituents than all other comments and suggestions combined: "It is 'Please don't raise my taxes,'" he said, noting that even in his more affluent suburban Baton Rouge district he believes residents are strapped financially.
"I certainly don't believe that we should be raising taxes," Edmonds said.
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That's prompted him to look elsewhere. Last year, he and Rep. Tony Bacala, R-Prairieville, set out to identify vacant government jobs that agencies received funding for with the goal of stripping that funding from future budgets.
Now, Edmonds has set his sights on the statutory dedications issue.
"One of these days, we're gonna get tired of talking about the budget," he said.
Edwards hasn't yet unveiled his recommendations for ways the Legislature should shore up the state's finances next year.
Certain tax and budget issues can only be addressed in a special session, and the governor gets to set the agenda for special sessions, unless the Legislature takes the unusual move of calling its own session.
Edmonds' ideal budget approach would be among the more radical proposals — basically wiping the slate clean to rebuild government.
"We need to evaluate and redesign each Louisiana agency," he said. "Sometimes in business you can't run your business the same way you did last year."