Over the past several weeks, conservative lawmakers on the House Appropriations Committee have questioned if, not when, the budget will be passed during the ongoing session that adjourns June 6. That means, not long after Gov. Bobby Jindal has "parked" his controversial tax swap plan, his budget could be stalling.
A few have even looked farther down the road in case there's a head-on collision. "There's more talk in the hallways about coming back for a special session on the budget than anything else," says Rep. Brett Geymann, R-Lake Charles, chairman of the Budget Reform Coalition and a founding "fiscal hawk."
It wouldn't be unprecedented. In 2000, as former Gov. Mike Foster was entering his second term, the budget bill stalled in conference committee, where key House and Senate members are supposed to hammer out differences. A special session ensued.
At the time, Jindal had just been pulled back into state government by Foster as the youngest-ever president of the University of Louisiana System. He turned 29 just three days after the Legislature adjourned without a budget.
Now 41 and approaching the midpoint of his own second term, Jindal's use of nearly $500 million in one-time money to underwrite higher education has both Democrats and Republicans uneasy. That most of the nonrecurring money is linked to contingencies such as legal settlements, fund transfers, land sales and privatization contracts — none of them guaranteed to come through — only makes matters worse.
"It has reached a different level," says House Democratic Caucus Chairman John Bel Edwards of Amite. "There are scores of members here who are Republicans and Democrats who are concerned about the same things, perhaps for slightly different reasons, but there is a broad area of agreement."
The numbers on the House Appropriations Committee appear stacked against Jindal, more so than ever before. But that may have less to do with money for the operating budget than with the lack of funding available in the capital outlay program, which the administration can use to place construction projects in lawmakers' districts.
The borrowing cap is $500 million away from being breached, which isn't much, says Sen. J.P. Morrell, D-New Orleans. That means arm-twisting will prove difficult for Jindal, who is suffering from sagging poll numbers and poor showings on the national presidential circuit. "It has taken away Jindal's sway," Morrell says.
If the administration manages to move the budget out of the Appropriations Committee, it will be due to a crafty amendment expected to be introduced Monday to back out the one-time money from the budget during committee debate to temporarily remove objections from lawmakers.
Geymann says the administration probably will put the money back into the budget somewhere along the process to keep it in balance. "No one wants a bogus amendment just to move the budget forward," he said. "That's ridiculous."
One senator, upon hearing the news, says it's an easy fix once and if the bill makes it to the opposite chamber.
The amendment is needed to avoid triggering the Geymann Rule, named for its author, on the House floor. It requires a two-thirds vote from the Lower Chamber just to debate a budget if it surpasses the allowable limit of one-time money under the rule, which Jindal's budget does. "We're in real jeopardy of being at a stalemate," Geymann says — that is, unless the planned amendment does the trick.
Allowing for political miracles and acknowleging the sheer power ingrained in the office of governor, if the budget does hobble over to the Senate, Morrell predicts it will arrive during the session's final days. Moreover, if it goes all the way and Jindal vetoes the compromises reached by the Legislature, he says the political will is strong enough to hold an override session. "I could see that coming into play," says Morrell, a member of the Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Committee.
At the end of the second week of the regular session, Geymann and Morrell were among the panelists invited to speak at the annual conference of the Public Affairs Research Council (PAR). They laid out the possible scenarios with grim faces, explaining how Jindal's tax-swap plan, which he pulled from consideration on the first day of session, shrouded the budget.
On the surface, many lawmakers seem OK with Jindal's use of one-time money and contingencies. If the state faces fiscal exigencies, using such temporary or "bridge" funding can be acceptable — depending on the circumstances — even for some conservatives. The problem is that reliance on one-time funds and contingencies, along with midyear budget cuts rendered after lawmakers go home, have become staples of Jindal's budget process, dating back to his first days in office.
If it's ever going to end, this could be the year it comes to a head. "I think we're on the verge of history here," Geymann says.
— Jeremy Alford is a freelance journalist in Baton Rouge. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @alfordwrites.