Governor has tough beginning

BUDGET PROBLEMS — Republican leaders in the Louisiana Legislature are making it difficult for Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards to propose a budget because of their refusal to go along with budget forecasts made by the state's economists.

Anyone who thought the fact that Democrats unanimously helped elect the new speaker of the Louisiana House would give Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards a break now and then had better guess again. Leaders of the newly elected and stronger Republican Legislature are already beginning to play hardball.

The governor’s earliest problems with legislative leaders surfaced Friday. House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, R-Gonzales, and Senate President Page Cortez, R-Lafayette, refused to adopt a new state revenue forecast sought by the governor. State economists had said the state would have $170 million more to spend in the current fiscal year and $103 million more in the next year.

Rep. Sherman Mack, R-Albany, who lost the speaker’s race to Schexnayder, had said he would adopt the revenue forecast if he got the job.

Schexnayder, who has insisted he is a good conservative Republican, proposed instead to adopt a lower forecast of about $94 million this year and flat for the following year. Cortez and Stephen Barnes, the new independent economist on the Revenue Estimating Conference (REC), agreed with Schexnayder.

“The Legislature wants to adopt a conservative estimate,” Schexnayder said. “This option achieves all of these goals. No one gets everything they wanted but everyone gets something they want to achieve their goals.”

Jay Dardenne, state commissioner of administration, Edwards’ budget chief and a member of the estimating conference, said the proposal was arbitrary and he voted against the proposal. He insisted the move was more political than a compromise.

“I think we’re treading on very thin ice here,” Dardenne said. “The REC is designed to rely on experts to tell the Legislature how much money we have to spend. We may as well not have our economists (who make the forecasts).”

Edwards later in a statement said the REC was designed as a non-political way to determine the amount of revenue that could be used to develop the state’s budget. He called Friday’s action to try and modify the forecast “completely arbitrary and would create a dangerous precedent.”

“It is my hope that President Cortez and Speaker Schexnayder will act in the near future to approve a forecast that will allow us to have a fruitful discussion of our spending priorities and that will lead to a balanced budget for our state,” Edwards said.

Former Speaker of the House Taylor Barras, R-New Iberia, and state Rep. Cameron Henry, R-Metairie, and now a state senator, blocked the REC forecasts last year and lawmakers were hoping for a more conciliatory attitude this year.

Edwards got around the opposition last year by proposing a state budget with funds he believed would show up in the treasury, and he could do it again this year. The Associated Press called it a “wish list of sorts.” The governor has to present a proposed budget to lawmakers Friday.

Last year, Dardenne said leaving out money that was expected to reach the treasury wasn’t in the public’s best interest. Legislators liked the idea of using funds that Edwards budgeted for all areas of education, and that is exactly what happened.

In a related problem, state Treasurer John Schroder has said he isn’t going to transfer some $25 million from an unclaimed property fund to the state treasury that was included in the forecast by state economists. Legislators have appropriated those funds in previous years.

Schroder said the money should remain in unclaimed funds to pay those owed money.

Dardenne said, “We’re going to sue him (Schroder). We can’t sit back and allow the treasurer to be the appropriator of state funds.”

As you can see, the deck is already well-stacked against Edwards on two fronts, and the new four-year term for Edwards and lawmakers isn’t even a month old.

How Edwards will fare from this time on remains to be seen, but he won’t have many friends on the House Appropriations Committee that approves the budget. The Advocate said there are 13 members of the committee who voted for Schexnayder and 12 who voted for Mack.

The administration may have more luck on the House Ways and Means Committee that handles tax and bond matters and the capital outlay (construction) bill. The committee has 14 Schexnayder supporters and 4 Mack supporters.

The odds are Edwards is going to have more problems at a time that demands a cooperative Legislature, one that has the people’s transportation, health care and other interests at heart rather than their own political fortunes.

Edwards said he hoped that Cortez and Schexnayder will act in the near future to approve a forecast by the state’s two economists that will allow them to have a fruitful discussion of spending priorities and that will lead to a balanced budget for the state.

“As I have often said, there’s nothing that we can’t accomplish by working together in good faith and putting Louisiana first,” Edwards said.

Unfortunately, the early signs don’t look promising.

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