Louisiana legislator questions accuracy of cost projections

By David Jacobs | The Center Square

As they consider bills during legislative sessions, Louisiana lawmakers depend on the Legislative Fiscal Office to tell them how much a proposed law is likely to cost.

But how accurate are those fiscal notes? At least one legislator has his doubts.

“It looks like on occasion [state agencies] weaponize the fiscal note in order to impact the outcome of the bill passage,” said state Rep. Tony Bacala, a Prairieville Republican.

Last year, the state House of Representatives passed a resolution directing the fiscal office to determine the cost of all studies requested by the legislature during the 2016-2020 term and evaluate the accuracy of those fiscal notes. The fiscal office was supposed to report its findings to the current House members by March 1 but has been unable to do so yet.

In many cases, the cost of legislation cannot be determined, Legislative Fiscal Officer John Carpenter said. And when it comes to collecting four years worth of information, as the resolution requires, some agencies are better than others, he added.

“Agencies will sometimes inflate their fiscal note information,” Carpenter said. If an agency says it needs additional employees and a ton of overtime pay to implement a new law, it’s hard for the fiscal office to corroborate that claim, officials said.

However, fiscal notes are not set in stone. The fiscal office staff routinely adjusts fiscal notes to reflect changes to a bill. They’re also willing to reconsider their assessments if a lawmaker, local government official or lobbyist thinks the note is inaccurate, though Carpenter said he can be “pretty hard-headed about it.”

“We will be happy to meet with anybody,” he said. “We’re not going to change it just because they say we’re wrong. But if they produce evidence that is verifiable, then we make changes when that happens, and it’s not unusual for us to do it.”

Carpenter said he’s also happy to explain how they arrived at a cost estimate during committee hearings or floor debates.

“Half the legislature seems to be mad at us at any one time because of fiscal notes,” he said. “Fortunately, the other half seems to not be mad, and it switches.”

The exchange happened during a meeting of the House Appropriations Committee, which is beginning its evaluation of state spending ahead of the legislative session that begins Monday.