Budget panel defers action on surplus _lowres

Advocate staff photo by ARTHUR D. LAUCK -- Finance Chairman Jim Fannin, D-Jonesboro, is shown in this June 2013 Advocate file photo.

The Louisiana Legislature’s top money committee punted Friday, failing to approve or reject the $178.5 million surplus the Jindal administration insists exists and others question.

“We have time to make sure that this number is an accurate number,” said Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget Chairman Rep. Jim Fannin, R-Jonesboro. “We won’t take any action today on it.”

Before the surplus for the last fiscal year, which ended June 30, can continue on the path that would allow its use by state government, the committee must approve. That’s not going to happen until the legislative auditor finishes reviewing and verifying the data used to come up with the state general fund balance, Fannin said. That process likely will take until the end of December, possibly January.

After the amount is approved by the budget committee, the Revenue Estimating Conference needs to certify the amount and determine whether the revenues are recurring or nonrecurring for budget purposes.

“There’s no rush to take action on it,” Fannin said. “Any new dollars have to be approved by the REC before they can be spent.”

A delay in budget committee action “serves the process much better today,” he said.

Questions have swirled around the administration’s inclusion of a new element in the calculation that led to the surplus finding. The administration counted $319 million in leftover cash from prior fiscal years that had not been captured using the regular methodology. When the administration initially announced the surplus, there was no mention of the newly found cash, some of which dates back to 2002.

The exact source of the money has not been disclosed. A budget surplus PowerPoint provided to the committee indicated it came from “sweeps” of unspent self-generated revenues and interagency transfers from 127 agencies. The agencies include the Departments of Revenue, Public Safety and Corrections, as well as the Secretary of State and State Treasurer’s offices. Also included is excess from the Department of Insurance and the Office of Financial Institutions.

State Treasurer John N. Kennedy said the state budget would have been in the red by $141 million last fiscal year absent the new development. He said he wanted to know if the cash exists. Kennedy sat in the back of the committee room with top aides as Office of Planning and Budget Director Barry Dussé gave the state’s financial status report, including the surplus figure. There was no discussion.

“These numbers are estimates,” Dussé said. He said the legislative auditor is reviewing them and “could recommend some adjustments to them.”

“We will make any necessary adjustments to these for the next few months,” Dussé said.

Last fiscal year’s state spending totaled $8.579 billion against state revenues of $8.757 billion — counting the newly identified prior-year funds.

The budget panel had been provided with a budget surplus PowerPoint presentation, but it was not taken up either.

Follow Marsha Shuler on Twitter, @MarshaShulerCNB. For more coverage of the State Capitol, follow Louisiana Politics at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog/.