BATON ROUGE — Republican lawmakers on the House budget-writing committee resisted suggestions Tuesday that Louisiana’s budget needs more money next year and said they’ll instead be searching for deeper cuts.
The Appropriations Committee opened hearings on Gov. John Bel Edwards’ spending proposal for the fiscal year that starts July 1. From the start, it was clear the hearings would continue the tug-of-war between the Democratic governor and the majority-GOP committee over the appropriate level of state government spending.
Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne, the governor’s chief budget architect, said the $29 billion operating budget proposal is more than $400 million short of what the Edwards administration thinks is needed.
The governor wants more dollars steered to K-12 spending increases, full financing for the TOPS college tuition program, roadwork, pay raises for state workers and new employees at the state’s child welfare agency. Edwards is expected to propose tax changes to raise money.
But GOP lawmakers showed little interest Tuesday in adding new dollars into the budget bill, which will be debated in the legislative session that begins April 10.
Rep. Blake Miguez, a Republican from Erath, said he can’t support tax hikes when workers in his district are struggling with the oil and gas industry decline and steep job losses.
“It’s difficult to bring that message home,” Miguez said.
Republican Rep. Rick Edmonds, of Baton Rouge, said the income estimates on which the budget is built too frequently are wrong, causing midyear cuts. He’s among lawmakers pushing an idea to spend a portion less than the full state income forecast.
“I think we start too high,” he said.
Dardenne said the governor supports such a concept, but not for the upcoming 2017-18 year when agencies already are slated to take cuts. He said trying such a method immediately would cause “more devastating cuts.”
Edwards’ budget proposal would trim most agencies’ spending.
Nearly all departments — except for the health department — would be hit with a 2 percent across-the-board reduction in the general state tax dollars
they receive. Rural hospitals and the privatized charity hospitals and services for the poor would get less money. The transportation department would be short of the money it needs to draw down available federal dollars for roadwork. The TOPS program would only pay for about 70 percent of students’ tuition.
Appropriations Chairman Cameron Henry, a Republican from Metairie, said committee members will look for ways to lessen spending, to “hedge our bets a little bit” against concerns that state tax dollars will continue to come in lower than projected.
“It’s just a mindset that folks are leaning to,” Henry said.
But the committee members didn’t detail how or where they’d cut. They talked of shrinking government jobs, consolidating programs, reducing government contracts and combating fraud, without specifics.
Dardenne started his presentation by explaining the many regulatory, constitutional and court-ordered constraints that dictate state spending on certain items. He said of the $9.5 billion in general state tax dollars, only about $3.5 million can be spent according to lawmakers’ discretion. Dardenne said most of that is spent on education and health care.
“You see how limited you are in where you go and where you cut,” he said.