Last Modified: Thursday, May 24, 2012 10:49 AM
BATON ROUGE (AP) — An attempt to tap into Louisiana's "rainy day" fund to fill a $200 million deficit this year is mired in negotiations over how deeply to cut next year's budget.
Members of a bloc of conservative House Republicans say they won't support using the rainy day fund to fill the gap in the current year budget, unless the Senate goes along with limitations on the use of one-time money in next year's spending plans.
"I don't disagree with using the rainy day fund if we absolutely have to. I want some parameters on how we're going to use it and some long-term solutions for our budget," said Rep. Simone Champagne, R-Jeanerette.
The state has a more than $200 million gap in the budget for the year that ends June 30, because of worse-than-expected personal and business tax collections. With only a month remaining in the fiscal year, cuts would be nearly impossible to reach the kind of adjustment needed to keep the $25 billion budget balanced.
Legislation to tap into the Budget Stabilization Fund was introduced this week in the House and Senate. Legislative leaders agreed to work to pass the Senate version of the measure, where it is expected to get a more favorable reception as budget negotiations continue behind the scenes between the two chambers.
"We're going to let President (John) Alario start it," said House Speaker Chuck Kleckley, R-Lake Charles, who scrapped a planned House committee meeting to hear the rainy day fund legislation Tuesday.
The House GOP coalition can stall the rainy day fund use because approval requires a two-thirds vote of the House and Senate, and the coalition has enough members to keep the legislation from reaching that benchmark in the House. The group has successfully stalled a bill that would finance state construction projects in the upcoming fiscal year as part of its bid to be included in negotiating a final version of next year's 2012-13 budget.
The days for reaching budget compromises are limited. The regular legislative session must end by June 4, fewer than two weeks away.
The conservative group is at odds with the Republican Jindal administration, Kleckley and other lawmakers who want to use the one-time money to piece together next year's budget and stop cuts to colleges and health services. Several Republicans senators have said they support restoring the funding stripped by their House counterparts.
The GOP bloc in the House describes the use of $268 million in one-time money to pay for ongoing services a fiscally irresponsible approach to budgeting that the state can't sustain year after year. Lawmakers in the group say the dollars could be stripped without damaging services, by targeting wasteful spending, eliminating vacant jobs, cutting state contracts and shrinking overtime pay.
Gov. Bobby Jindal's budget advisers and agency chiefs say the types of cuts proposed by House Republicans would force deep reductions in state programs and services that would fall most heavily on higher education and health care because those areas receive the bulk of the state's discretionary spending.
The Senate Finance Committee has heard dire scenarios of prison closures, elimination of Medicaid programs and colleges pushed to financial emergency status if the one-time money isn't restored to next year's more than $25 billion budget.
Champagne and other House Republicans accuse the Jindal administration of using scare tactics to pressure lawmakers to add the dollars back into the spending plans.
Lawmakers have spent little time discussing this year's $200 million deficit, and some had proposed ignoring the shortfall until the state's books are formally closed several months after the legislative session ends. Senate Finance Chairman Jack Donahue, R-Mandeville, said he believes the deficit must be addressed before lawmakers go home.
Kleckley said he expects to eventually get House backing for using the rainy day fund to plug this year's budget gap.
"I think in due time we can get it off the House floor," he said.