By MELINDA DESLATTE Associated Press
BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — As Louisiana’s financial picture improves, legislative leaders are proposing to increase spending on their own agencies by $12 million next year, even as they sit on hefty multimillion-dollar surpluses for which they have no immediate plans.
The budget proposal for the House, Senate, legislative auditor and other offices that work for lawmakers would spend $107.6 million in the 2019-20 financial year that begins July 1. That’s up from $95.5 million this year.
Legislative leaders downplayed the size of the recommended increase as they discussed their proposal at a budget hearing Tuesday, not mentioning that nearly all legislative agencies would see more money available for spending next year.
The spending plans come in two parts: the budget bill filed late Wednesday by Republican House Speaker Taylor Barras that would allocate $97.6 million and a separate, annual $10 million earmark for legislative agencies enacted in 2008 that’s not included in the bill’s tally.
Barras’ legislation doesn’t mention the $85 million in surplus cash that state legislative offices have socked away over the years, according to audits.
“We really hadn’t put our heads together as to how that money should be spent,” said Republican Senate President John Alario. “I believe it’s important for the legislative branch and the judicial branch to maintain some surpluses in case a future governor was not as favorable to the legislature and decided to try to influence the legislative and judicial branches by holding back their money.”
When questioned about the surplus in interviews, lawmakers have said the House and Senate should maintain some cash reserves, but Alario also has talked about using portions of the money for construction projects, such as a possible legislative office building and repairs to the Louisiana Capitol building.
For their annual operations, legislative leaders reviewed details of the spending proposals at a Tuesday meeting. But they only talked about a portion of the proposed increase, new dollars for the Legislative Auditor’s Office that reviews spending by government agencies and a small increase for the Legislative Fiscal Office that analyzes the financial impact of bills.
They didn’t break out how the other increases would be divvied up.
Alario said the House and Senate have had to absorb the costs of seven special sessions since 2016, all dealing with the state’s financial problems, along with the rising price tag for retirement and health care benefits. Legislative agency leaders have described shrinking workforces, even as demands have grown higher.
The House and Senate will have new lawmakers to train and an organizational session to hold in the upcoming budget year as the new term of office begins after elections, Alario noted.
The proposed increases come as lawmakers also are considering spending boosts across several agencies of state government, after reaching a seven-year tax deal last year that stabilized state finances and ended repeated cycles of budget gaps.
Lawmakers also are proposing a nearly $10 million increase for the judicial budget, which covers operations for the Louisiana Supreme Court, appeals courts and other state court expenses. The proposal would boost spending to $183 million, as the Supreme Court also maintains a surplus pegged at nearly $58 million, according to its most recent audit.
Follow Melinda Deslatte on Twitter at http://twitter.com/melindadeslatte