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Lawmakers strike at budget protections

by Minden Press-Herald

BATON ROUGE — House Republicans started shaping their response Monday to Louisiana’s budget problems, taking aim at the thousands of consulting contracts across state agencies and the special protections that keep some spending areas shielded from cuts.

The Appropriations Committee backed bills that could force state contract cuts and would require more reporting to auditors before the deals are struck. The committee also advanced a proposal that would unlock millions in restricted funds, allowing legislators to spread out cuts to more areas of the budget.

The measures, which head next to the full House for debate, are part of GOP lawmakers’ efforts to slash government spending more deeply than Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards proposes. Edwards has called for $160 million in cuts by June 30 and is asking lawmakers gathered in a special session to raise taxes to help stabilize the state’s budget.

“If we want to raise revenues, we’ve got to show that we’re doing our level best to spend money appropriately,” said Rep. Jay Morris, R-Monroe.

Louisiana has an $850 million to $950 million gap in the $25 billion budget for the current fiscal year that ends June 30 and a more than $2 billion shortfall next year.

Republican lawmakers have offered few specifics of where they would slash spending more deeply than Edwards wants. But they have seized on suggestions from Treasurer John Kennedy, who has repeatedly criticized state agencies for what he considers wasteful spending on contracts.

State agencies are estimated to have 15,000 to 20,000 contracts with lawyers, consultants, architects, engineers and other businesses that provide services. Kennedy said many of those agreements receive little outside review to determine if the spending is the best use of state money.

“If you just spend four to five hours looking through these contracts, it’s just going to make you throw up,” the Republican treasurer said, leafing through a list.

The committee backed proposals that would require contractors to provide financial information to the legislative auditor before receiving money and the state to shrink spending on many consulting contracts by 15 percent in the next budget year.

Also approved was legislation by Rep. Lance Harris, chairman of the House GOP delegation, that calls for the Edwards administration, the commissioner of higher education and statewide elected officials to report their contracts to lawmakers by March 1, identify those that can be cut and start eliminating them.

“We need to bring people to the table to justify these contracts,” said Harris, R-Alexandria.

The nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Office suggested the contract changes won’t guarantee sizable savings, because of various exceptions included in the measures.

Edwards issued an executive order last week calling for a review of consulting contracts across most state departments. The order gives Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne the ability to cancel contracts deemed to be “inappropriate, unnecessary or duplicative.”

“We’re on this issue. We’re concerned about it,” Dardenne said.

He suggested Harris’ deadline was too tight, but lawmakers refused to change it.

“It may be unpractical, but I say go for it,” said Rep. Beryl Amedee, R-Gray. “We’re looking for dollars.”
The committee also advanced competing proposals to eliminate protections given to some areas of state spending. The idea is to allow lawmakers to spread cuts more broadly, rather than levying reductions most heavily on colleges and health services.

“In this time of crisis, we have to look at everything, put it all on the table and decide what our priorities are,” Morris said.

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