Gov. Bobby Jindal may have won his most recent budget battles with a group of Louisiana House fiscal conservatives, but the win won’t rid the governor of legislative criticism for his budgeting tactics.
Lawmakers who unsuccessfully tried to shrink Jindal’s spending plans are hitting the books in the legislative offseason. They’re beefing up their knowledge of how state spending and contracting works – delving into details that can be tough to dissect in the limited weeks of a legislative session.
The bloc of lawmakers who object to the Jindal administration’s patchwork financing of state government agencies and programs are getting organized, calling themselves the “Budget Reform Coalition.”
More than two dozen House members led by Rep. Brett Geymann formed a political action committee, set up a website and announced plans to travel the state seeking support for their push to change how Louisiana spends its money. They also are considering sending out political mailers and advertising directly to voters.
“We believe the whole process is broken,” said Geymann, R-Lake Charles. “The key for us is going to be getting enough information for us to make a decision. We’re going to put a lot of pressure on government to provide us the information to help us craft a budget that works.”
If Jindal doesn’t get a job that takes him to Washington, the Republican governor will face continued disputes and budget headaches caused by members of his own party who believe Jindal hasn’t practiced the fiscal conservatism he preaches.
Geymann said creation of the Budget Reform Coalition wasn’t designed to be a direct attack on Jindal or his financial policies, but an education process.
“We have all said that we don’t want to go out and challenge the governor. That’s not our goal,” he said. “Our goal is to focus on the budget and the challenges we’ve had year after year and try to find some solution. And hopefully, the administration is going to join us.”
The bloc of House fiscal conservatives, who called themselves the “fiscal hawks” during the last legislative session, say the state’s chronic budget shortfalls and repeated midyear cuts are worsened by the piecemeal financing that the Jindal administration has used to cobble together budget plans.
The lawmakers object to using one-time sources of money that aren’t certain to appear annually to pay for continuing services and programs. They say that creates budget crises every year when the one-time dollars fall away, leaving the governor and lawmakers to scrape for new sources of one-time cash to balance the budget. Instead, they argue state officials should shrink the size of government to reflect the income the state expects to bring in year after year.
Those House Republicans were unsuccessful in seeking to remove nearly $270 million in one-time money that is paying for ongoing expenses in the $25.6 billion budget for the fiscal year that began July 1. The dollars come from the sale of state-owned buildings, loan repayments, legal settlements and other available pools of funding.
Critics of stripping the dollars, including Jindal administration leaders and state senators, said the money was needed to avert deep cuts to state services. They said they preferred the piecemeal financing to eliminating health care services and worsening reductions to public colleges.
The House conservatives claimed the spending reductions could come from cuts to unnecessary contracts, funding for unfilled jobs, travel and supplies. They accused the Jindal administration of using scare tactics to get the 2012-13 budget plans through the Legislature.
By doing research in the offseason, members of the Budget Reform Coalition are hoping to get enough analysis and data to back up their assertions that there are places to cut that won’t devastate health care and colleges.
More than a quarter of House members have signed on to join the group. If they get to a full third of the chamber, the lawmakers could block some budget bills and threaten passage of Jindal’s spending proposals in upcoming sessions.
That’s the kind of power they’d need to force the Jindal administration to the negotiating table, rather than just being the governor’s headache.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Melinda Deslatte covers the Louisiana Capitol for The Associated Press.