House advances bill meant to restrain spending

By David Jacobs | The Center Square

Louisiana’s House of Representatives on Friday approved legislation meant to encourage lawmakers to spend only 98 percent of the general fund money that is expected to flow into state coffers.

Under current law, the Revenue Estimating Conference adopts a prediction about how much money the state will collect during the next fiscal year, and the governor crafts a spending proposal based on that estimate. Lawmakers are allowed to spend as much as the REC projection says will come in.

Rep. Rick Edmonds, the Baton Rouge Republican who authored House Bill 118, argued his proposed change would lead to more responsible budgeting.

Since it is almost impossible to get a revenue projection exactly right, restricting lawmakers from spending the entire amount gives them a cushion in case the actual revenue falls short of the projection, he said. And if the prediction turns out to be too low or about right, the state would end up with a surplus.

Edmonds acknowledged lawmakers already have the ability to spend less than the projected revenue even without the artificial limit.

“We just haven’t shown the will or the desire to do that,” he said. “This gives us the opportunity to flip the way that we think.”

Edmonds said legislators still could “override ourselves” and spend more if they saw the need by adding supplements to the executive budget proposed by the governor. Rep. Chad Brown, a Plaquemine Democrat, said the bill would put the onus on the governor rather than the legislature to restrain spending.

“We are the appropriating body and we should be doing it,” Brown said.

Rep. Gary Carter, D-New Orleans, said the measure, which could lead to less money for health care, education and other needs, was ill-advised during an unprecedented pandemic.

“The people of Louisiana are suffering,” he said. “Now more than ever is the time that the full weight of our appropriations powers is laid to bare to support the people of Louisiana.”

But Rep. Tony Bacala, R-Prairieville, pointed out that the law would not go into effect until the 2021-2022 budget year, when COVID-19 hopefully will be only a “bad memory.” He also argued the state would have been in better financial shape to take on the pandemic if Edmonds’ proposal had been enacted years ago.

Edmonds made the same proposal last year. It cleared the House but died in the state Senate.

This year’s bill passed the House 66-32. Its chances of getting to the governor’s desk likely are better this year in a Senate that is more conservative than last year’s.