State Lawmakers Shield Their Budget From Chopping Block
BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — As they weigh steep cuts across state services, Louisiana lawmakers have fully funded their own budget so legislative agencies are poised to escape reductions in three weeks, even as those agencies are sitting on tens of millions of dollars in unspent funds.
Lawmakers passed an $85 million spending plan for the House, Senate and other legislative agencies in the fiscal year starting July 1, similar to the budget approved last year, while education, social service and public safety programs are on the chopping block. And legislative agencies get an additional $10 million annual dedication of money for their operations from an earmark enacted in 2008.
In addition, audits show that on top of the annual financing they're slated to receive, the House, Senate and other legislative agencies have tens of millions in unspent fund balances — and even more cash in the bank beyond that. One legislative agency alone, according to a recent financial report, showed more than $42 million in the bank, with more than $40 million deemed an "unassigned fund balance" when the last budget year ended in June 2017.
Gov. John Bel Edwards called it "the height of irresponsibility" for lawmakers to cover their own paychecks and operations while leaving other agencies facing deep reductions.
"Isn't that something? The Legislature's budget is fully funded right now. But the budget for the state agencies that actually serve the people of our great state, including our children and our most at risk people, catastrophically underfunded," the Democratic governor said after a budget-balancing special session collapsed.
Louisiana is expected to bring in $648 million less in the budget year starting July 1, a shortfall tied to the loss of temporary taxes. Lawmakers will consider replacement taxes to lessen cuts in a special session beginning next Monday, the third special session this year after two earlier budget-balancing sessions called by Edwards cratered without closing the gap.
Without additional money, the state operating budget will slash spending across most agencies outside of health care services to stay in balance in three weeks.
Republican Senate President John Alario said Monday that if lawmakers don't close gaps in other agencies, the legislative budget should be reworked to also take reductions.
"I think we ought to share in whatever cuts are across the board," he said. "If the overall problem gets solved, then the legislative budget gets solved. If the overall problem doesn't get solved, that'll have to be thrown in the mix."
GOP House Speaker Taylor Barras didn't respond to phone calls from The Associated Press.
It's hard to determine exactly how much money legislative agencies have at any given time, because the treasurer's office says the House, Senate and other legislative offices don't keep their funds in accounts with the state treasury like most other state agencies.
But annual audits by outside accountants are released each year through the Legislative Auditor's Office.
The most recent financial reports, for the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2017, show the House sitting on more than $30 million in the bank , with about $6 million deemed an "unassigned fund balance." The Senate, according to its report , had $7.5 million considered by auditors to be unassigned out of nearly $10 million in the bank. The Legislative Budgetary Control Council, which covers expenses shared by the House and Senate, was listed as having more than $40 million unassigned, according to its financial report .