Columns » The State of the State by Jeremy Alford

Dividing the State Budget Pie

A behind-the-scenes look at how the budget was passed, warts and all

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The day the Louisiana House of Representatives sent the state's $26 billion operating budget to the Senate, the folks over at Hubig's sent over a large tray of their pies to lawmakers on the floor. In response, legislators starting calling out for their faves. "Toss me an apple!" "They brought any peach?" One sergeant-at-arms jockeyed for a lemon pie. A few even recused themselves from enjoying the Faubourg Marigny's most famous delicacy.

  The scene wasn't unlike what happens every year over the state's financial resources, except the budget represents one enormous pie and practically everyone wants a slice.

  At no other time during the recent legislative session was that more evident than on its final day, June 21. That's when House leaders, most notably Appropriations Chairman Jim Fannin, D-Jonesboro, agreed to send the state's annual spending plan in House Bill 1 to Gov. Bobby Jindal without forcing the measure into a compromise committee.

  In exchange, Senate President Joel Chaisson, D-Destrehan, agreed to attach $30 million in lawmakers' pet projects to the state's ancillary budget in House Bill 76, the same barrel of pork Senate members patted themselves on the back for stripping from HB 1 when the bill came over from the House. "I think they serve a valuable service," Chaisson said of the pet projects during the session's final hours.

  As in previous years, pie slices were doled out based on rank and favor. For the most part, the Legislature's chairmen were granted six-figure marks, sometimes more, while individual members of budget committees got smaller allocations. Sometimes, portions can be traded to lower-ranking lawmakers for votes or other courtesies.

  To hear Fannin explain it is to hear the voice of political logic: Nothing gets done around the Capitol for nothing. "It's just a process down here where members who work on and sit on committees are able to have a little for doing that," he said before the House adjourned sine die (without setting a date for meeting again).

  Rep. Juan LaFonta, D-New Orleans, chastised his colleagues for not only taking part in the "process," but also endorsing it through a series of yea votes. "If you're going home with your little project and you're happy, then you're not looking at this with a clear vision for the state," LaFonta said. "This here stinks. And it stinks because everybody in this room got elected by their constituency to come down here and be responsible."

  It's not as if the state has money to spare. The fiscal year that ends this week saw a $600 million shortfall; the new budget that takes hold July 1 contained a pesky $1 billion gap, and lawmakers were forced to begin preparing — it's debatable as to whether that actually occurred — for another $2 billion deficit forecast for the 2011-2012 fiscal year.

  That latter figure is likely to balloon, LaFonta railed, thanks in part to Jindal's decision, for which he had legislative support, to use one-time money to float the new budget rather than cutting in preparation for the following year — ominously dubbed "the cliff year" for the state's anticipated long fall from its recent fiscal high ground. The BP catastrophe in the Gulf will undoubtedly deliver another fiscal body blow to the state, just in time for Budget Crisis 2.0 next year.

  Noting the ironic juxtaposition between Jindal and LaFonta's budgetary positions, Rep. Ernest Wooton, R-Belle Chasse, floated a dead-on assessment. "This day will live in infamy," he said. "Little Bobby turns liberal and Rep. LaFonta turns conservative."

  Infamy? Or just a case of everybody wanting — but not everybody getting — a piece of the pie. Freshman Rep. Ledricka Johnson Thierry, D-Monroe, having just completed her very first session, thanked House members for a "great experience," which caused House Speaker Jim Tucker, R-Algiers, to walk up to the podium and check her forehead for a fever.

  But Thierry wasn't feverish at all. Instead, she offered her colleagues some sweet potato pies that she brought from her district.

  One veteran House member was quick to explain to her how things work. "Do we get the whole sweet potato pie," asked Rep. Jeff Arnold, D-New Orleans, "or do we have to give half to the Senate?"

Jeremy Alford can be reached at jeremy@jeremyalford.com.

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