Louisiana legislators have been quietly toiling away for more than a year on an exhaustive review of funds in the state budget that are locked up by law.
The review of the state's nearly 400 statutory dedications, often referred to as "stat deds" in discussions at the State Capitol, ultimately will prompt a second round of legislation during the session that begins in April. The Legislature approved the first round of eliminations earlier this year.
"We're doing a deep dive into funds that for the most part haven't been looked at in a very long time," said Sen. Sharon Hewitt, a Slidell Republican and co-chairwoman of the review committee. "It feels like it's an endless list."
Statutory dedications, which legally require government to spend a certain amount of money on a specific budget line each year, lock up more than $3 billion in the budget. Over the years, they've been added into law to direct money to pet purposes outside the regular budget process.
"We look forward to going through each one of these items," said Rep. Rick Edmonds, R-Baton Rouge, the budget subcommittee's other co-chairman.
As the review has gone on, lawmakers are finding outdated funds — some haven't had money directed to them in years; some seem to contradict each other — that they are recommending for elimination. Others are offering opportunities for more information and justification of their existence.
"Some of these funds were created 30 years ago and perhaps justifiably so at the time, but so much has changed," Hewitt said.
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During a hearing Wednesday, the committee reviewing the funds — one by one — found five that were ripe for elimination. One was funded through a fee, which is technically a different classification in the budget, so the committee will recommend that it be redefined. Another was outdated and hadn't been used in years. And the state Treasurer's Office recommended that one be converted to an escrow account because it's funded only through donations.
"I think we have many funds that are categorized as statutory dedications that should not be," Hewitt said.
Rep. Tony Bacala, a Prairieville Republican on the panel, said, "We ought to think through these and just start calling them something else."
But the committee also has recognized that some of them exist for a reason. During Wednesday's meeting, the committee learned that a fund established to take in money from the state's settlement after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill is the best way to receive and spend that money. The committee recommended no changes to that fund.
"Many members talk about how informative this whole process is," Hewitt said.
A bit of information gleaned Wednesday was that the funding for state public defenders is a "statutory dedication" that could also be a line item in the budget.
The state's chief public defender, Jay Dixon, also revealed that funding for indigent defense will need an infusion of money from the state in the coming years to keep up with the need and a drop in local funding, largely due to decreased traffic tickets.
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The committee didn't take action on the public defender fund, but several members suggested that it be redirected to a general fund item so lawmakers have a chance to evaluate funding.
The committee also learned about how various funds relate to each other.
"There's a direct correlation through many of these funds that are directly in some cases, and indirectly in some cases, competing with each other," said Sen. Norby Chabert, R-Houma. "We literally have competing funds."
Statutory dedications, a wonkish state politics topic, have received more attention in recent years as the state cycled through budget shortfalls. As lawmakers weighed cuts to higher education and health care, many lamented the billions rendered untouchable through funds protected in state law. The issue has been cited among those who favor a constitutional convention to rewrite the state's core laws.
Trying to figure out how to fund state services in the coming year isn't the only budget discussion dominating the state Legislature this year.
"I don't think we have to have a constitutional convention to address this issue," Hewitt said. "We can do it, though it's slow and painful to look at them one at a time."
In the 1980s, Gov. Buddy Roemer, facing a steep budget crisis, with one signature eliminated most of the existing statutory dedications, but funds have re-emerged over the past three decades.
Hewitt said she sees the latest effort as necessary to making the budget process more open.
"It's always interesting to me when agencies defend wanting to keep a fund that has had little to no activity over a five-year period," she said. "Ideally, we need to have all the money on the table — on a level playing field where agencies can defend their need for funding."