House budget hearings loom as some uncertainties clearing up

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BATON ROUGE— Lawmakers are taking a short break from the budget, waiting to get final tallies on bills they passed in the special legislative session and bracing themselves for hearings to comb through the grim cut scenarios.

Though they opened a regular legislative session Monday, budget hearings aren’t scheduled to begin until next week.

Gaps Still Unknown

The precise size of the budget gaps remains unknown. This year’s shortfall ranges from $30 million to $60 million. Next year’s hole is estimated to reach $800 million.

Greater clarity should arrive Wednesday when Louisiana’s income forecasting panel, known as the Revenue Estimating Conference, adjusts its estimates to account for the taxes passed by lawmakers in the special session.

The Legislature’s financial staff was trying to determine the implications of last-minute rewrites to sales tax increases passed in the frenzied final minutes of the special session that ended last week. They are expected to have those updates for the forecasting panel.

“We haven’t even begun to grasp the full size of the problem that we currently face with respect to our finances,” Gov. John Bel Edwards told lawmakers as they opened the regular session.

Budget Hearings

House Appropriations Chairman Cameron Henry said he expects his committee — the first stop in the budget-crafting process — to begin hearings next week on the spending plans for the fiscal year that begins July 1, after the latest financial estimates have been updated.

He said he’ll break the work among subcommittees so lawmakers can dive into individual agency budgets and look for savings. Lawmakers won’t be able to raise additional taxes in the three-month regular
session, so they expect to make deep reductions across programs.

“It’s going to be difficult to work through the budget process this year, but I can’t remember a year recently when it hasn’t been difficult,” said Henry, R-Metairie.

Republicans, particularly in the House, balked at many of the Democratic governor’s tax proposals in the special session.

Edwards said since lawmakers didn’t raise enough taxes to fill all the budget holes, Louisiana won’t have enough money to “adequately fund what we all know to be our critical priorities,” including colleges, health services, public safety and the TOPS free tuition program.

Immediate Cuts

Agencies were combing through cuts assigned to them in the budget year that ends June 30, now that a final version of the budget slashing bill became available for viewing this week.

Edwards said he can strip some cuts with his line-item veto. But removing cuts from one area means the governor would have to find ways to trim spending elsewhere.

In addition, a midyear deficit of $30 million to $60 million remains to be closed. Lawmakers left decision-making to the governor’s commissioner of administration to make the remaining cuts required to rebalance this year’s budget.

Another Special Session

Already talk has turned to the possibility of another special session, sometime after the current session adjourns in early June, to consider additional tax hikes to stop some of the deepest cuts from taking hold in the fiscal year that begins July 1.

But Edwards said agencies and public colleges will have to prepare for the steep cuts they’ll be assigned, since it’s unclear when another tax session may be scheduled or what would be passed in it.
“Between now and then there will be unnecessary pain visited on the state of Louisiana, pain that could have been avoided had we done our job the first time around,” Edwards said.

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