As lawmakers look to close a nearly billion-dollar budget gap during the ongoing special session, House Republicans are pushing to restrict what they say is an outdated system for setting how much money the state can spend each year.
The new spending cap proposal, authored by House Speaker Taylor Barras, is one of only two of the Legislature's key session priorities to advance out of committee nearly a week into the 17-day special session that started Monday.
House members are scheduled to debate the proposal on the chamber floor Sunday evening. It requires support from two-thirds of each chamber in the Legislature to pass, and voters statewide ultimately would have the final say because the change requires a constitutional amendment.
"I don't take constitutional changes lightly," Barras said of his bill, but he says that the current cap calculation, which dates back the mid-1990s, has become "irrelevant."
"I question the reason for having it in the constitution when we never really get near it," he said.
If approved, Barras' new spending cap proposal would link how much money the state can spend in a given year to factor in shifts in population, the regional consumer price index and state personal income levels. It would also restrict state government spending to 6 percent growth each year. It would not affect federal funding nor self-generated funds that agencies bring in through various fees and charges.
The Legislature is in its fifth special session in two years – all dealing with budget issues.
Because most revenue-raising measures have to begin in the House, the Senate has largely been waiting for the lower chamber to pass legislation onto it. The Senate hasn't met since Tuesday, but is scheduled to convene Sunday, with the expectation of accepting legislation from the House.
The new spending cap proposal is part of a broader push by House Republicans to try to slow government spending, which swelled after hurricanes Katrina and Rita hit a decade ago. The current state spending level has had little movement in the past four years, as the state has gone through repeated cycles of shortfalls.
In addition to the spending limit idea, Republicans are pushing for a new budget transparency website and new restrictions on the Medicaid health care program for the poor.
Currently, the expenditure limit is based on the limit for the previous year multiplied by a growth factor that only considers the change of personal income in the state.
Because it has outpaced actual money, the state has largely relied on grounds set by the Revenue Estimating Conference on what the state can expect to have. While the spending cap in the current constitution has increased over time, the REC forecasts have regularly come up short.
Up to last year, the state had 15 mid-year budget deficits in nine years. The most recent revenue estimate was the first time the state forecast showed that revenue was outpacing expectations in more than a decade.
"I just feels counterproductive when you are decreasing the REC forecast yet increasing the spending cap by three percent," Barras said. "It seems like a totally irrelevant process and not a useful tool."
Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, has not spoken out against the spending cap change, as it is one of the House Republican leadership's priorities before approving any revenue measures that may go toward narrowing the budget gap that the state faces when temporary tax measures expire June 30.
Edwards' administration and some Democrat legislators have voiced concern about how restrictive the new cap could be and other issues that it may raise including possibly triggering broader legislative action when routine changes to the budget are needed.
"As far as I'm concerned, I'd like to support it, but I do want to work on it to get it where it needs to go," said House Speaker Pro Tempore Walt Leger III, D-New Orleans.
Barras said he's willing to work on the bill, which made it out of committee on Tuesday.