Lawmakers don’t follow their rhetoric

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Lawmakers have taken strong philosophical positions on certain financial issues, but they aren’t always keeping in step with their own rhetoric this legislative session.

They have repeatedly talked of their problems with having few places to cut in times of budget woes, because many of the state’s dollars are protected by constitutional or statutory requirements.

Yet bills to lock up more of the state’s Medicaid budget – and make it difficult, if not impossible, to cut hundreds of millions of dollars in payments to hospitals and nursing homes – are nearing final legislative passage.

Meanwhile, Republicans have worried about state debt levels and spending, but lawmakers both Democrat and GOP are overwhelmingly backing a proposal that seeks to sidestep the state’s debt ceiling to borrow $250 million for community and technical college construction.

And part of the budget compromise reached in the House with the conservative Republican “fiscal hawks” includes some of the same types of uncertain financing assumptions that they’ve slammed Gov. Bobby Jindal for using.

Lawmakers defend their votes and regularly offer explanations for how they think their support for items that seem contrary to their beliefs actually dovetail with their previous stances. That doesn’t mean the explanations entirely explain away the conflict.

When the Senate Finance Committee discussed the bills to protect the rates paid to private hospitals and nursing homes for taking care of Medicaid patients, senators acknowledged the proposal didn’t entirely fit with previous concerns about dedicated funding.

Then, they voted 9-1 to advance the measures.

“It leaves us limited places to go in terms of making rate reductions and other changes,” warned Kathy Kliebert, interim secretary for the state Department of Health and Hospitals.

Rep. Walt Leger, D-New Orleans, said the facilities whose rates would be protected generate dollars that are used to bring in the federal match money for the Medicaid program, so he said they should be afforded some level of protection.

“I think that’s reasonable to expect when you ask for that kind of private investment into the Medicaid system,” he said.

Lawmakers on the House Appropriations Committee who have spent months talking about debt concerns and budget shortfalls still voted 19-3 for a Senate-backed proposal that would let community and technical colleges borrow construction money outside of the state’s debt limit.

Supporters talked about the needs of worker training programs for economic development.

Treasurer John Kennedy said the funding, outside of the traditional capital outlay process, would exceed the state’s debt cap.

“Just because we vote this bill out of here today doesn’t mean we’re busting the cap. It means we’re going outside of the process,” said Rep. Simone Champagne, R-Erath, arguing that the Bond Commission could keep total construction funding below the debt limit by managing the state’s list of projects.

Kennedy replied, “It’s like you’re saying, ‘I vote to hang an innocent man, but I didn’t do anything wrong because I didn’t slap the rear of the horse.’ I just don’t buy that argument.”

Gov. Bobby Jindal supports the spending outside of the debt limit as well – though he’s repeatedly complained about federal spending and congressional votes to raise the national debt ceiling when he goes to other states for political speeches.

Jindal has been criticized by a group of conservative House Republicans nicknamed the “fiscal hawks” for using patchwork financing to pay for ongoing programs, saying that creates cycles of repeated budget shortfalls.

But the House budget compromise backed by most of the fiscal hawks uses similar types of uncertain financing, taking out Jindal’s piecemeal dollars and replacing them partially with $200 million anticipated from a tax amnesty program that would only last for a short time.

Sen. Greg Tarver, D-Shreveport, questioned if the House numbers pan out.

“With your experiences, would you use the figure of $200 million to budget, or less?” Tarver asked Greg Albrecht, the chief economist for the Legislative Fiscal Office.

“I actually wouldn’t use a figure to budget at all, senator,” Albrecht replied during a recent budget hearing.