House Republicans taking new approach to Louisiana budget

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BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — As they craft next year’s budget, Louisiana’s House Republicans are looking to the past, burrowing into agency spending trends in a new twist on traditional budget hearings that has identified billions allocated but never collected.

GOP members of the House Appropriations Committee are trying to determine if departments are socking away pots of money they don’t discuss, swapping out financing sources to boost their bottom lines or overestimating how much money they’re going to collect.

“The first thing we ought to shoot for in the budget is creating an accurate document,” said Rep. Tony Bacala, a Prairieville Republican. 

The House’s nonpartisan financial analysts say of the $29.3 billion state operating budget lawmakers adopted for the 2017-18 fiscal year, agencies only spent $26.8 billion — nearly 9 percent, or $2.5 billion, less than approved.

That doesn’t equate to a state surplus.

Instead, agencies often anticipate they’ll receive more cash than they get from penalties and fines, fees for services, grants or the federal government. That extra padding — called “unspent budget authority” — has inflated the size of the budget legislation passed by lawmakers.

“It’s perceived that we’re going to have the largest budget in state history this year. That’s the perception. The reality is it isn’t because all that money’s not going to come in,” said Appropriations Chairman Cameron Henry, a Jefferson Parish Republican. “So, instead of living in the falsehood, we want to live as close to reality as we can.”

The extra spending authority gives agencies wiggle room to collect more money without having to return to lawmakers for permission to spend it midyear. They also can shuffle dollars to spend money they’d otherwise lose at the end of the year, while hanging onto other cash they can hold over in accounts with minimal legislative oversight.

Republicans say that gives lawmakers who control the purse strings too little information about actual spending.

“The open checkbook days are going to be over, where we give you the excess authority and you carry it over from year to year,” Rep. Johnny Berthelot, a Gonzales Republican, told one agency.

The Appropriations Committee dedicated a day of its budget hearings to a deep dive into a dozen departments that had significant unspent sums each year. In response, some offered to shrink budget requests for the upcoming fiscal year that starts July 1 to more accurately reflect what money they expect to receive, or said they’ll return with new calculations. 

For example, Louisiana’s child welfare agency didn’t spend $167 million it was budgeted last year, nearly all of it because the dollars didn’t arrive as projected. Children and Family Services Secretary Marketa Garner Walters offered to cut nearly $61 million in federal funds proposed for next year’s budget, saying the department doesn’t expect to collect the money.

To explain the unspent budget authority, several agencies talked about overestimating tax and fee collections or difficulty calculating who will need services and what they’ll use.

“It’s impossible with 357 revenue sources to get it to the mark,” said Cindy Rives, chief financial officer for the health department, which didn’t spend $842 million of the budget authority it had last year, most of it federal money.

Other agency leaders talked about building in excess spending capacity so they’re ready to receive federal disaster aid if a devastating storm or flood strikes.

Henry said state law allows departments to spend money for a disaster without needing immediate legislative approval. For any other scenario, he noted the joint House and Senate budget committee meets monthly and can adjust agency budgets if more fees, grants or federal dollars than budgeted roll in.

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