Louisiana Budget

LSU economist Jim Richardson, Senate President John Alario and Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne, from left to right, talk ahead of the meeting of the Revenue Estimating Conference on Monday, Dec. 10, 2018, in Baton Rouge. The three conference members wanted to boost the state's income projections, but House Speaker Taylor Barras blocked the changes. 

Some people are calling the spending plan that Gov. John Bel Edwards’ administration proposed last week an aspirational budget. That’s because it includes money that the Legislature, as of now, cannot officially spend.

The plan also aspires to something else: A return to normalcy, an end to the nakedly political standoff that has prevented the state panel tasked with recognizing projected revenue from doing its job.

And in that sense, the document outlined last Friday by Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne before the Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget also amounts to a countermove by the administration against House Speaker Taylor Barras. Barras, of course, has spent the past several months waging a one-man campaign to block the Revenue Estimating Conference from formally recognizing the money that economists expect the state to collect next year so that it can be included in the budget that lawmakers adopt this spring.

Barras’ stated reasons for being the lone holdout on the four-member panel — which also includes Dardenne and Senate President John Alario, both fellow Republicans, and LSU economist Jim Richardson — are less than compelling. He says he’s not comfortable approving the estimate by two other economists, one representing the Democratic governor and the other the Legislature, but has not offered evidence that the projection is shaky and has not proposed an alternative method for figuring out how much the state should budget. The whole thing appears designed to inject election-year gamesmanship into the upcoming budget debate.

The first casualty of this strategy would have been Edwards’ budget proposal, had the governor’s team stuck to the tradition of only including money that the REC has recognized. Instead, it went ahead and included the unrecognized new money anyway.

In practical terms, that means that the proposed budget includes full funding of the popular TOPS college scholarships, $140 million in new spending on K-12 education, and pay raises of $1,000 for teachers and $500 for school support workers.

In political terms, it means that Edwards gets to attach his name to the pay raise, which is designed to bring Louisiana’s public school teachers back up to the Southern average. This is hardly a stretch, since the governor has been talking up the idea for months now. But if part of the motivation behind blocking the REC was to keep him from including the idea in his initial budget proposal, as some have speculated, then that failed.

And in procedural terms, it means that the administration is choosing to ignore Barras’ obstructionism and assume that the money will eventually be recognized so that it can be spent. Doing otherwise, Dardenne told lawmakers, would be “divorced from reality.”

That’s true. It would also amount to unilateral disarmament in a fight in which the other guy was the first to break the rules, or at least violate the norms.

Of course, violating the next norm — the introduction of a budget based on actual, recognized revenue estimates — is hardly an ideal solution. And the whole back-and-forth serves to undermine a process that was created, ironically, to take the politics out of revenue forecasting.

The fact that it’s now been re-politicized is squarely on Barras and his conservative allies in the House. The Edwards administration’s response is appropriate under the circumstances, even if it takes us even further away from normal, established order.

Far better would be an agreement on both sides to follow the process as designed, or at least have an intellectually honest discussion about how to build a better one, and let the chips fall where they may. That’s something that everyone involved should aspire to.

Follow Stephanie Grace on Twitter, @stephgracela.