by Rep. Ernie Alexander
Louisiana appears to have an abundance of riches at this time. This is reflected in the Governor's budget. When she spoke to a meeting of Lafayette-area legislators Monday she told us there was an additional $1.292 billion in this year's budget. Of this amount $611 million, about half of the total, will be dedicated to education and $198 million will be directed to health care redesign.
The debate over the budget, if there is one, will be about whether or not to “break the cap.” You will recall that the recently-ended legislative special session fell apart because Republicans refused to “break the cap.” The “cap” is a Constitutionally imposed spending limit which is designed to ensure that the Governor and the legislature do not go on a reckless spending spree which will deprive the citizens of Louisiana of future necessary revenue. The “cap” can be broken but only by a super-majority vote. Under normal circumstances it takes only fifty-three votes (of 105 members) for passage of a bill. In special circumstances, such as this one, it will take a vote of seventy members or more for passage.
There will be rhetoric about Republican “obstructionists” before a vote on the issue is even taken. During the last session, it is true that the vote on the “cap” was almost entirely along party lines with all but two Democrats voting to “break the spending cap” and all but two Republicans voting against breaking “the cap.” [See, House Vote on HCR 6, FINAL CONSIDERATION (#36)] Since that vote, incidentally, one of the two Democrats who voted not to break the “cap” has become a Republican. The odds are now less favorable for the Governor getting seventy favorable votes than they were at that time with GOP members in the House now numbering forty-three.
The division between the two parties has been emphasized with the organization of a Democratic Caucus. This is the first time that this particular group has come into being. Prior to this recent grouping, there was a Black Caucus (of 23 members) and a Republican Caucus (now numbering 43). What the formation of the Democratic Caucus has done has been to force the more fiscally conservative Democrats, those who often vote with the Republicans on fiscal matters, into voting with the rest of their caucus on those issues. There is a definite divide on budgetary matters in the House.
Most Louisiana citizens have no real idea of how or where the state budget originates and how it finds its way into law. The budget document finds its origin in the Governor's office under the pen of former Lafayette Representative Jerry Luke LeBlanc. After approval by the Governor, it is sent to the House Appropriations Committee. That committee has nineteen members, TWELVE of whom are appointed by the Governor through the Speaker of the House who was also appointed by the Governor. Let us pause for a moment to examine that last statement before we continue. You will hear the point that the Speaker is elected by the membership of the House. This is true. However, no person will be elected Speaker without being ordained for the job by the Governor.
After the “special friends” of the Governor who sit on the Appropriations Committee have been allowed to add a bit of “pork” to the document, it is sent to the floor of the House for debate. In the eight years in which I have served in the legislature NOT ONCE has the budget been changed on the House floor after leaving the Appropriations Committee. We came close in 2005 when forty-six members voted for an amendment to House Bill 1(by Representative Jim Tucker) to raise teacher pay by almost two thousand dollars from available and recurring funds. The amendment had forty-eight votes against it.
The Governor says that Louisiana's economy will remain strong for at least the next ten years. Others, such as respected economist Dr. Loren Scott, say the time-frame is more like four years. At that point the one-time dollars generated by insurance payments, savings account withdrawals and the BILLIONS of dollars being pumped into the state by the feds with no longer be there. We must prepare for that moment. If we are not prepared, the economic situation could be disastrous, especially if we inflate salaries of individuals to a level we can no longer afford.
The lines have been drawn in the sand. The Democrats will be out to spend every available dime during this session. The Republicans will advocate a conservative approach and argue in favor of saving some of the funds for next year and the years to come. The key question to be resolved is “what will be the effect of breaking the cap on future budgets.” Few legislators are financial experts and we will look to PAR, CABL, State Treasurer John Kennedy and other groups and individuals to provide a clearer, non-political analysis of the ramifications of the vote on whether or not to “break the cap.” The vote on the issue will not be so much a vote of party politics as it will be one of fiscal responsibility.