Beam: Give Legislature seat at table

By By Jim Beam / American Press

A group of conservative Republican legislators in the state House of Representatives didn’t have much budget success at last

year’s session, but give them credit for their determination to reform the process by which the state spends its revenues.

The GOP stalwarts are back again and more confident than ever.

The primary spokesmen for that Republican group that calls itself the Budget Reform Coalition are Reps. Brett Geymann of Moss

Bluff (Lake Charles), Cameron Henry of New Orleans and Lance Harris of Alexandria.

Louisiana governors have had almost

complete control of the budgeting process since the state entered the

Union. They formulate

the spending plan, send it to the Legislature for approval and get

it back in pretty much the same way it started. Lawmakers

might not like the finished product but they know the governor has

the last word in more ways than one.

The governor’s line-item veto power

over appropriations can be deadly for a legislator hoping to “bring home

the bacon.” Louisiana

governors also pick leaders in the House and Senate and have

approval power over committee assignments. And those who don’t

play by the governor’s rules know payback can be painful to their

political ambitions.

Gov. Bobby Jindal is no different than any of his predecessors, the conservatives said. They said it’s the process and not

the person.

Maybe so, but there is one unique

feature in Jindal’s case. He has a national reputation as a conservative

who likes to cut

taxes, curb spending and initiate education, retirement and other

reforms. On the other hand, he doesn’t mind bending the

rules a bit to find extra money to spend in order to fashion his

budgets. In fact, free-spending Democrats in the House helped

the governor pass last year’s budget.

The main complaint of those conservative lawmakers is that Jindal too often uses one-time money to make the books balance.

One-time money comes from revenues that aren’t likely to be available in coming years.

Jindal also scoops up any loose funds sitting around that might be needed elsewhere. He doesn’t mind selling some of the state’s

assets to create needed cash, and he uses funds based on contingencies that haven’t happened yet.

Members of the House were successful

last year in removing $267 million in one-time money from Jindal’s

budget by a vote of

51-49, a majority of those voting. However, the Senate restored

the funds. The House went along with the change, 62-40, but

37 of the “no” votes came from GOP conservatives, who are also

known as “fiscal hawks.”

OK, so what is their game plan this year?

Last November, 19 House members asked

state Attorney General Buddy Caldwell to determine whether the $25.6

billion budget

was constitutional. To no one’s surprise, Caldwell declined to

act. A number of Louisiana attorneys general have had a reputation

for avoiding controversy at all costs.

The late Gov. Earl K. Long in the 1950s said Jack P.F. Gremillion Sr., a longtime state attorney general, did not “know a

lawsuit from a jumpsuit” and added: “If you want to hide something from Jack Gremillion, put it in a law book!”

Since Caldwell wouldn’t decide the

issue, Henry and Rep. Kirk Talbot of River Ridge filed suit this month,

insisting the budgeting

process last year was unconstitutional. They said the budget’s

constitutionality is questionable because it relied on one-time

money for ongoing expenses, depended on contingencies that hadn’t

happened and exceeded revenue estimates.

Geymann talked about other plans on the

drawing board. The hawks want to open up the budgeting process, which

will be a monumental

undertaking. Jindal has jealously guarded the budget discussions

held by his inner circle from public scrutiny.

The conservatives also want the budget to be debated early in every legislative session. It has become a last-day decision

in virtually every session with no opportunity to make any significant changes.

Currently, legislators can control only $2.4 billion of the $8.3 billion in state money in the nearly $26 billion budget.

Most of the other money is protected from budget cuts by either the constitution or by statutes passed by the Legislature.

Geymann said lawmakers want to open up more of the budget to cuts. They also want an end to the use of one-time money.

It is an ambitious agenda, but the

climate may be better this time around. Those budget practices the

conservatives want to

reform have resulted in continuous mid-year budget cuts that have

hit health care and higher education hard. Neither is protected

from budget reductions.

Legislators are especially disturbed

over cuts that have been made to hospice care for the dying, services

for battered women,

the mentally ill and drug-addicted and the elimination of an early

childhood support program. Reductions in higher education

funding have caused faculty losses, larger classes and crippled

campus maintenance. Higher tuition has also made it more difficult

for low-income residents to have access to a college education.

The fiscal hawks said they don’t blame

Jindal for budget problems that have been around a long time. However,

they would have

to admit that Jindal has been able to take advantage of

questionable budget practices that have helped all Louisiana governors.

The big question now is whether Jindal will give up some of his

political stroke in order to reform the process. It is one

of those “we will believe it when we see it” things.

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Jim Beam, the retired editor of the American Press, has covered people and politics for more than five decades. Contact him at 494-4025 or