Conservative House Republicans don't intend for Louisiana's newfound budget stability to end the state's financial battles, particularly in an election year that could be viewed as a referendum on Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards' handling of state spending.
A joint House and Senate budget meeting last week offered a preview of the financial disputes on the horizon for the two-month legislative session that begins in April. House Republicans and the Edwards administration tangled at the meeting with raised voices, jabs about election-year politicking, and traded allegations that laws were being violated.
The dividing lines remain the same, with a segment of conservative House Republicans, including House GOP leaders, at odds with the Edwards administration over tax policy, spending levels, and the growth of government.
The tactics have altered slightly, with fights focused on the state's income projections and the mechanics of filing budget documents. But the philosophical disagreements and the politics are the same — amped up by statewide elections only months away, in which Edwards is seeking re-election against Republican opponents, and lawmakers are vying to keep their seats or move to new positions.
The latest skirmishes kicked off a few months ago when House Speaker Taylor Barras and House Appropriations Chairman Cameron Henry, both Republicans, blocked increases to state income projections.
Nonpartisan economists recommended the forecast boosts. The Edwards administration and Republican Senate President John Alario, an ally of the governor, backed the changes. But Barras and Henry said Louisiana's economy was too unstable to justify the adjustments.
The Edwards administration accused the House leaders of trying to manipulate financial projections to keep the governor from proposing the budget he wanted with teacher pay raises included.
Rather than be bound to a forecast without the economists' latest figures, Edwards gave the Legislature a budget proposal in February that was a wish list, assuming the money would eventually be recognized during the session. The governor included the teacher raise, along with other education and health spending hikes.
Republicans didn't immediately object to the budget proposal, but House GOP leader Lance Harris and Republican Rep. Rick Edmonds raised concerns a month later at Tuesday's joint budget meeting.
Edmonds suggested Edwards violated the state constitution, by not matching the spending plans to available, recognized revenue. Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne, the governor's top budget adviser, said Barras hadn't followed state law requiring the Revenue Estimating Conference to "revise the official forecast for the ensuing fiscal year" by January. The last financial forecast for the upcoming year was adopted in June, without the improved expectations of economists and without billions that agencies expect to receive from fees, fines, and other revenue sources.
Edmonds, of Baton Rouge, said the governor's budget proposal "puts us in the predicament of a useless document" that he described as "in violation of the Louisiana Constitution."
In an exchange that grew increasingly tense, Dardenne said: "It is not in violation of the Louisiana Constitution, and no one has seen fit to file suit and contend that."
Harris, of Alexandria, questioned the precedent Edwards set by offering an aspirational budget that doesn't match the official revenue forecast.
Dardenne replied: "It's not a bad precedent for any future governor because hopefully we're never going to be in this situation again where we play these games about what the revenue of the state is."
Left unquestioned was why House Republican leaders who have touted independence would care if they got an accurate budget proposal from Edwards or not, since they criticize his approach to state spending and likely would want to heavily rewrite his budget.
Harris transitioned to Edwards' questionable campaign talking point that he and lawmakers cut taxes last year, particularly since over the course of the governor's full term since 2016, taxes have increased and people are paying more.
"I'm just trying to make that math work," Harris said.
Dardenne suggested that if lawmakers in the majority-GOP Legislature think taxes are too high, they can offer a specific list of where they'd like to cut spending.
"Heretofore, I have not seen a willingness to say, 'Here's what I don't want to fund anymore,' " he told Harris.
Expect that tense tone and accusation trading to continue into the legislative session that starts in two weeks and well beyond that, until the October election.
Melinda Deslatte has covered Louisiana politics for The Associated Press since 2000.