House Speaker Chuck Kleckley. (Associated Press)
Last Modified: Thursday, May 02, 2013 6:14 PM
BATON ROUGE — House Speaker Chuck Kleckley reversed course Thursday and threw his support to bipartisan budget negotiations in the House between Democratic leaders and a group of conservative Republicans.
Kleckley, R-Lake Charles, had been supporting a plan that involved simply maneuvering the budget through the House and working with the Senate on a final budget that includes patchwork financing sought by Gov. Bobby Jindal but that is opposed by a bloc of conservative GOP House members.
That approach ran into widespread opposition from House lawmakers, who say they should have a hand in crafting the more than $24 billion budget for the 2013-2014 fiscal year, which begins July 1. Seventy-one members of the House earlier this week used a procedural move to stall Kleckley’s approach.
Kleckley, who got his leadership job with Jindal’s support, took to the House floor to announce his position change, talk of his participation in the budget negotiations and tout it as a sign of legislative autonomy.
“This is a shining moment for the House of Representatives to show our independence,” he said. “I feel very comfortable by Monday, at the latest, there will be a clearly defined plan in place to help resolve a lot of these challenges that we are having with our budget.”
Conservative Republicans, nicknamed the “Fiscal Hawks,” want to keep piecemeal financing — like money from property sales, legal settlements and fund sweeps — from paying for ongoing programs and services. They say the use of such one-time money creates continuing financial problems when the dollars fall away and new budget gaps are created.
Democrats want to rework tax breaks to drum up new money for operating expenses, rather than focusing all discussion about the state’s continuing budget problems on how to cut spending or how to devise one-time, patchwork solutions.
The two sides are working on a compromise that would incorporate both, a mix of cuts and tax changes — along with long-term adjustments to the budget process sought by the “Fiscal Hawks.” They hope to have an agreement devised before the House budget debate scheduled for next Thursday.
“We’re much closer than we’ve ever been in the past, and it’s a broad coalition,” said Rep. John Bel Edwards, D-Amite, head of the House Democratic Caucus.
Rep. Brett Geymann, R-Moss Bluff, said Kleckley’s announcement is “a big momentum builder” in coming up with a quality budget. Geymann is the one of the leaders of the “Fiscal Hawks.”
“We needed that,” he said. “I think he’s been interested in something all along. I think, maybe early on, they were skeptical that we could pull all this together.”
Tax parts of the plan could start shaping up early next week, as the House Ways and Means Committee meets Monday. Rep. Joel Robideaux, R-Lafayette, chairman of the panel, said the committee likely will start moving the bills that would rewrite tax exemptions, credits, exclusions and rebates as part of a negotiated plan.
“At this point, you have everyone engaged in discussions regarding the budget, and that’s the way it should be,” said Rep. Katrina Jackson, D-Monroe, head of the Louisiana Legislative Black Caucus.
Rep. Mike Danahay, D-Sulphur, said the announcement was a “stellar moment in (Kleckley’s) position as speaker.” Danahay sits on the Ways and Means Committee.
“He really stood for his members, and I was really proud of him,” he said. “You do have a bipartisan coalition there that’s working together to try to bring a better budget. I think they’re going to come up with a great plan.”
The hurdles for maneuvering a compromise package through the full Legislature are high. Removal of tax exemptions requires a two-thirds vote, as does even getting the budget proposal on the House floor for a vote.
If House members can hold their coalition, they also have to persuade two-thirds of senators — despite a veto threat from Jindal for any bill that he considers a tax increase, including the elimination of tax breaks.
To override the governor’s veto would take another two-thirds vote in both chambers.
“If there’s a consensus that’s reached within the body that’s bipartisan, I think the will to override will be there,” Robideaux said.
Edwards said five years of budget shortfalls have driven lawmakers to work together and find some common ground that could help dig the state out of long-term financial problems.