Just when it seemed fights over Louisiana's state budget had become a thing of the past, tempers flared again at the State Capitol on Tuesday over better-than-anticipated revenue collections.
The Revenue Estimating Conference, a panel representing the House, Senate and governor and an independent economist, couldn't reach the unanimous vote needed to upgrade the state's economic forecast — after a proxy member rejected the proposal.
The move would have freed up about $40 million that the Legislature tucked into the budget for corrections, sheriffs and a new center for juvenile offenders, if the state's budget outlook improved.
The roadblock also threatens Gov. John Bel Edwards' ability to include much-touted teacher pay raises when he unveils his budget proposal in January, if additional funds that he wants to use for them aren't recognized.
The REC routinely adopts tweaks as the economic climate improves or depresses, but Tuesday's meeting grew tense and acrimonious at times. Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne, Edwards' chief budget architect and current chairman of the revenue estimating panel, has vowed to hold more meetings in the coming weeks so those spending priorities can be addressed.
"This is not the way to handle the state's business or budget," he said.
House Appropriations Chairman Cameron Henry, a Metairie Republican often at odds with Edwards, was the lone objector and was taking part in the meeting in House Speaker Taylor Barras' absence.
He argued the state should be more cautious about when it adopts a rosier outlook.
Jim Richardson, the LSU economist who has served on the panel that forecasts how much revenue the state will collect each year, has announced …
"There's a lot of volatility in the economy," said Henry.
But Edwards, in a sharply worded statement, accused Henry of "politiciz(ing) this process."
"In an unprecedented political ploy, Chairman Henry objected to adopting the forecasts proposed by the economists," Edwards, a Democrat, said. "Both the Legislature’s economist and the state’s economist projected an improved revenue forecast for the state as a result of an improved economy. This is not new money or asking for additional money."
Edwards also blasted Barras, R-New Iberia, for sending Henry in his place.
"Speaker Barras requested that the REC meeting be held on this date to accommodate his schedule, but instead decided to send Chairman Henry to do his work for him," Edwards said. "Once again, the speaker is bending to the will of a small band of obstructionists in the House who are determined to keep the status quo in our state."
"We’ve seen these games time and again, and the people of Louisiana are tired of them," Edwards added.
The state's economists acknowledged that their estimates didn't reflect a recent drop in oil prices, which can impact state collections, but they agreed that the state is outpacing past projections for the fiscal year that started July 1. They also recommended increasing expected collections for the following budget cycle.
The Edwards administration is "in the throws of budget preparation" for the coming year, Dardenne said. By law, the governor must kickstart the budget process with a detailed executive recommendation in January, and it can only contain revenue that has been recognized by the REC.
"This, no doubt, will provide the basis for those numbers," Dardenne said.
For the current year, the Legislature agreed to the unusual move of adding priority items to the budget as a contingency if revenue collections outpaced expectations. Any of those items, which include about $10.8 million to open the long-delayed Acadiana Center for Youth in Bunkie, $10.5 million for sheriffs and nearly $16.3 million for the Department of Corrections, would still require approval by the Joint Legislative Budget Committee after REC recognizes available funds.
Dardenne and Senate President John Alario questioned whether Henry's concerns were in good faith.
"If the game is just to delay this and not fund the (money) that's there, then just say it," said Alario, R-Westwego.
Henry denied he was playing political games with the state's purse strings.
But it is the latest in a long string of battles between Edwards and House Republican leaders over state spending.
Edwards, who took office in January 2016, has called seven special sessions over the past three years — all to address budget issues after a cycle of projected deficits. The Legislature earlier this year agreed to extend part of an expiring sales tax hike through 2025 to shore up the state's finances for at least a few years.
The final agreement to set the sales tax rate at 4.45 percent came only after weeks of debate among Edwards, who had pushed for a 4.5 percent sales tax rate, and opponents, largely led by House Republicans, who wanted a smaller extension or none at all.
The sales tax rate, which had been 5 percent for the prior two years, would have dropped to 4 percent on July 1 without legislative action. State leaders, guided by economist projections, had estimated a nearly $500 million gap if no additional revenue was generated to replace the expiring sales tax.