From 1992 to 2007, during the administrations of former Govs. Edwin Edwards, Mike Foster and Kathleen Blanco, the politics behind the state budget process often played out in quiet corners of the Capitol. The horse-trading was pragmatic at times, due to everyone — the administration, House and Senate — being on the same page.
Politically-fueled slush funds were used to inject money into local projects across the state. Lawmakers needed only to vote with the administration to get their perks, as reporters, good government groups and the legislators not on the receiving end of the deal often pointed out to voters.
While there were a couple of unforgettable budget battles during this span, there were also years where the operating budget appeared to pass (from the outside looking in) with barely a whimper. Meltdowns related to the budget were rarely ideological and the resulting divisions inside the Capitol were usually small.
The phrase “discretionary money” took on an entirely different meaning, especially with each member of the Legislature’s budget committees controlling their own sizable pots of cash. It was not a perfect process, but sometimes it made votes predictable and meaningful debate possible.
Over the past 12 years, through the administrations of Bobby Jindal and John Bel Edwards, things have changed. Administration officials became more transparent about the prioritization of state money, particularly as the public began to assess the worthiness of certain slush fund projects. Officials have likewise come to argue that there simply isn’t enough money now to play such earmark politics.
More Republicans were also elected to serve in the Legislature during this time, introducing new conversations about spending caps, the use of one-time monies and revenue-neutral policies. Suddenly the budget was hosting partisan battles, at first under Jindal, who wanted the GOP nomination for president, and then under the Democratic Edwards Administration, which was and is pitted against a Republican-led Legislature.
Where the trend goes from here is anyone’s guess, but the administration and the Legislature both have time on their side. The budget process likely won’t be settled until the Legislature approaches the June 1 conclusion of its regular session that convenes in less than a month, on March 9.
As he was unveiling the $32 billion executive spending plan last week, Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne reminded legislators that the final chapter on the budget for the next fiscal year is not yet written.
“This is the starting point,” Dardenne said.
Here’s an overview of what that starting point looks like for now:
A $32B PLAN: The administration has put forward a plan for a $32 billion budget for the 2020-2021 fiscal year, including $285 million in increased spending.
EDUCATION WINS: Education would get the biggest boost, meaning enough to cover the growth in TOPS, $25 million in early learning resources, $35 million for public universities and $65 million for K-12.
CAMPAIGN PROMISE OVERLOOKED: Local school districts would have to handle any hikes in teacher pay, as the Edwards Administration budget plan does not accommodate for any such pay increases, despite recent campaign vows.
SOME GET PAY BUMPS: There are salary hikes for cabinet appointees, rank-and-file state workers, judges and district attorneys — most of them expected and previously approved.
OTHER SPENDING: There’s also increased dollars for housing juvenile offenders and state inmates in parish jails and expanding Medicaid to cover more minors with developmental disabilities.
TRANSPORTATION TRENDING: A need for additional transportation spending was noted by Senate President Page Cortez, who’s expected to make it a hallmark issue during his tenure. Dardenne said a bigger conversation is coming, adding that the FY19 surplus will be used in part to underwrite transportation matters and that he personally expected another surplus from FY20.
$103M IN QUESTION: The administration’s budget proposal currently includes money that has not yet been recognized by the Revenue Estimating Conference. At issue is an estimated increase of $103 million, which is connected to a boost in tax collections.
THE DISAGREEMENT: As has been the case in recent years, Republicans want to spend less of that $103 million than the Democratic administration desires. What’s different this year is that the administration is now in disagreement with both the House (nothing new) and the Senate (sorta new) over exactly how much. For now, it sounds as if all parties are moving towards a compromise.
TREASURER SUED: The administration’s budget proposal currently includes $25 million in unclaimed property money that Treasurer John Schroder is refusing to transfer. While such transfers have routinely been made in the past, Schroder has argued in recent months that state law doesn’t allow for them. In response, the administration filed a lawsuit against the treasurer last week to settle the matter.
So what’s the next step in the evolution of Louisiana’s budget politics? Like Dardenne pointed out, we’re only at the starting point of a new term. Maybe the budget will continue to evolve as a placeholder for hyper-partisan debates, rather than substantive conversations about public needs. Or maybe a streak of pragmatism will sweep the Capitol.
Either way, hopefully the key players involved will view this snapshot in time as a starting point, as Dardenne urged, rather than a point of no return — because that would show no evolution at all.
Jeremy Alford can be reached at JJA@LaPolitics.com.