state budget

Six weeks into the new state budget, and many are worriedly asking, “Is the new budget okay?”

“That’s a big unknown,” Legislative Fiscal Analyst Greg Albrecht told the Revenue Estimating Conference Friday. “We’re going to have a high degree of uncertainty, I think, in this overall package.”

The House Appropriations Committee approved the budget bill – HB 1 – Monday. But first, members exhibited their expertise in using the news for clues which couch cushions to look under for loose change.

Houma Rep. Joe Harrison snagged some Racing Commission money for the Board of Regents, which he discovered in a recent report from the Legislative Auditor.

“The Racing Commission, since the inception of ‘gaming’, was supposed to be giving a percentage of its money, its budget, to Regents,” Harrison told the committee. “So we can only go back five years, but that amounts to $2.8 million.”

Covington Rep. John Schroder found some spare change for disabilities programs by looking in the Department of Economic Development.

Tuesday’s House Ways and Means hearing on bills to cap the film tax credit program brought out some of the big names in Louisiana movie-making, like Lampton Enochs of the Oscar-winning Moonbot Studios, and former Dukes of Hazzard star, John Schneider.

“I have not won an Academy Award, but I’ve seen several films that have,” Schneider said, eliciting laughter from committee members and the packed audience in attendance.

But charmed as lawmakers were by the big names, it was Louisiana residents working in the movie industry who made the biggest impression. Dozens spoke against Alexandria Rep. Lance Harris’s bill that would scale the credits down to zero over the next five years.

As lawmakers wrap up week two of the fiscal session, their efforts to steer the budget bus keep hitting curbs. Now they’re starting to exhibit some road rage.

In the Senate Education Committee Wednesday, a bill that would uncouple TOPS scholarship amounts from future college tuition hikes — in order to contain the cost to the state — drew opposition from the administration.

“This legislation would negatively impact the program,” Jindal policy advisor Stafford Palmieri stated, “Because we’ve broken our promise to fully pay for their tuition to go to college.”

“You oppose this plan?” Baton Rouge Senator Dan Claitor asked. “Then show us your plan. How do you propose to support higher education?”

The House Appropriations Committee has advanced a bill that would keep highway dollars committed to road work by limiting how much can be shifted to State Police.

“Throughout this state, the common theme is that the legislators have raided the Transportation Trust Fund for other needs,” said New Iberia Rep. Terry Landry, in explaining reasons for authoring HB 208.

The first week of the 2015 state legislative session is in the books.

The Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana recently put out a guide to the budget crisis lawmakers are grappling with. And PAR President, Robert Travis Scott, is following along as the budgeting process unfolds.

While the Senate Finance Committee began working through the budget Tuesday, the House Appropriations Committee was taking public testimony on it.

“Thank you for coming today for this testimony,” Appropriations chair Jim Fannin said in welcome, noting the weather made it more difficult than usual for many who turned up to add their input to the process. “We are appreciative for that,” he said.

Much of the public testimony went as expected: requests for higher allocations to cover jobs and services.

The Louisiana Legislature gets back in session Monday. The number one problem facing lawmakers is how to come up with $1.6 billion to balance the budget.

The budget is the big issue when the legislature convenes next week, and the administration is placing heavy emphasis on GEMS initiatives.

“GEMS” is the acronym for Government Efficiencies Management Support”, which is the title of the efficiency report commissioned last year from the consulting firm of Alvarez and Marsal. Although the report wasn’t delivered till the very end of last year’s session, lawmakers were loudly skeptical of the cost of the contract to provide the report, and the savings promised by Alvarez and Marsal.

Louisiana’s budget problems have many criticizing the tax incentives for the entertainment industry, which cost the state about $250-million last year. A legislative task force has been looking into ways to curb fraud in the film program. They met last week, to discuss the thrust of bills they may file in the upcoming legislative session.

“These are various common-sense measures that we think can be taken to perhaps make it a little bit less easy to steal from these programs,” Louisiana Inspector General Stephen Street said, as he prepared to give the panel suggestions based on his experiences investigating problems with the programs.