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State Budget Woes

Lawmakers are working with piecemeal data, nonprofits are scrambling, and the push to increase state revenues is oh so taxing.

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Many of the same state lawmakers who freely spent Louisiana's surpluses just a few years ago are now looking for ways to close a $3 billion budget gap that will take hold on July 1 and not let go until June 31, 2012. One way to approach "the cliff" is to pull back — on expenditures, that is — but that's hard to do when the brakes on your budgetary wagon won't cooperate.

  That's a challenge Rep. Joe Harrison, R-Napoleonville, has encountered as a member of the House Appropriations Committee, which was hearing testimony for weeks prior to the current session's start in late March. While the state must reduce spending, Harrison says, the only kind of spending data he gets from state departments and agencies has arrived "bundled."

  By that, he means expenses are shown as lump sums, mostly in broad categories instead of a listing of every ... single ... expenditure. "We're not looking to micromanage here," Harrison says. "But we want to see if there's overspending."

  In particular, Harrison says, departments and agencies may overspend grossly during the last part of every fiscal year. In many instances, he says, officials find themselves with 30 percent of their budgets still unspent during the fourth quarter. In most cases, they spend it no matter what — in order to keep from losing it the following fiscal year.

  Even in the corporate world, there's a prevailing philosophy that any money not spent in a current year's budget will be subtracted from next year's budget. As a result, heavy fourth-quarter spending is the norm.

  Harrison has been seeking information on this phenomenon, should it exist, for months. He may be closer than ever to obtaining a definitive answer with his House Bill 387, which would force every state entity to submit itemized monthly spending reports to the Division of Administration.

  Most folks in the budget line, however, are more concerned with getting any state money at all. For example, the PBS member stations in southeast Louisiana that pipe Antiques Roadshow, Big Bird and coverage of the ongoing legislative session into your living room are among those feeling the pain, albeit differently in each case.

  For the second year in a row, New Orleans public television stations WYES-TV and WLAE-TV have been excluded entirely from the state budget — after 25 consecutive years of receiving state appropriations. In 2008, WYES got $360,000 and WLAE got $280,000.

  Meanwhile, the Louisiana Educational TV Authority, which oversees Louisiana Public Broadcasting (LPB) in Baton Rouge, is facing a "mere" 20 percent — or $1.7 million — cut. LPB President Beth Courtney told members of the House Appropriations Committee recently that she needs an additional $900,000 in the budget, which LPB would match with $1 million in fundraising.

  If that doesn't happen, she says, employees will have to be furloughed and broadcasting shut down at least once a week. "It's a mountain that's going to be really high to climb," Courtney says.

  Her woes are nothing compared to those of WYES general manager Randy Feldman.

  He says the administration's budget recommendation is confusing. "We serve 13 parishes and one-third of the state's population," he says. "Why LPB is still in the budget but we're not, I don't know. It's a policy question for the leadership, an issue of consistency."

  Feldman says he's working with regional lawmakers to get some relief before the 2011 budget negotiations begin, which is when serious cuts will have to be handed down at all of the PBS member stations. The stations generally cooperate and share resources. "For me, this is not a LPB-WYES-WLAE issue or a New Orleans-versus-the-rest-of-the-state issue," Feldman says. "It is, simply put, that if a service is a priority of state government, that service should be supported throughout the state."

  While LPB has the backing of a state agency in the Louisiana Educational TV Authority, WYES and WLAE are treated as nongovernmental entities, or NGOs, in the budget — a breed that has come under attack in recent years from the Jindal administration. For example, Rep. John Schroder, R-Covington, has introduced House Bill 1101 to prevent NGOs from receiving state funding during deficit years. Lawmakers seem less inclined than usual to protect local NGOs this year.

  Mona Gobert-Cravins, assistant administrator of 232-HELP/Louisiana 211, an informational referral line serving Acadiana, has been working to muster nonprofit troops statewide to oppose Schroder's bill.

  "To prohibit funding NGOs under these restrictions, knowing that it is the NGOs they and our citizens rely on to deliver critical services to the neediest populations, should be unacceptable by all of us," she wrote in an email blast shortly after the session convened. "With an increased demand for our services and cutbacks from private donors and local government, the implications we face should this bill pass would be devastating."

  While everyone seems to want state government to get smaller, budget cuts will only get lawmakers so far, especially this year.

How will they balance a budget that's out of whack by $1 billion — with an administration that absolutely will not tolerate any tax hikes? Where's the money going to come from?

  Senate President Pro Tem Sharon Weston Broome, D-Baton Rouge, offers a sober take not only on the coming fiscal year, but also on the next. In 2011, lawmakers will face an additional $2 billion shortfall — and legislators will want to put taxes on the table. Next year is an election year, however, and Gov. Bobby Jindal will oppose taxes more stridently than ever.

  "In some instances, there will be no good choices," Broome says. "Vital services for our families, our children and our disabled and elderly citizens are at stake."

  Senate President Joel Chaisson, D-Destrehan, says everything deserves a hearing at this point. "Now more than ever we need to bring all ideas to the table for a reasoned, responsible discussion about Louisiana's new path," he says.

  That new path probably is going to be paved with lots of "fees," which are kind of like taxes, depending on your tolerance levels. Typically, they're levied on consumers or users of a particular government service and are dedicated to those specific services. Often they're called by a different name. That's one way lawmakers could balance the budget; various fee hikes have been put into the pipeline.

  Higher ed folks are looking to increase tuitions and fees virtually across the board, and even neighborhood protection districts are asking for higher parcel fees. One bill would boost vehicle inspection fees, and another would jack up emission inspection fees.

  Even Jindal's administration has gotten into the act. Among potential fee hikes are those for practically every class of driver's license, brand new tires, certain civil filings, state park admissions, traffic cases, arrest expungements, consumer credit transactions, used motor vehicle dealers, oyster leases, copies of medical records, license plates and every fine that can be issued by the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.

  Want to know more about how the budget will be balanced, at least in part, this year? Just tweak the famous axiom so often attributed to former U.S. Sen. Russell B. Long and you're there: "Don't Fee You. Don't Fee Me. Fee That Guy Behind the Tree!"

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

State Senate President Pro Tem Sharon Weston Broome says the Louisiana budget shortfall will, in some cases, leave 'no good choices.'
  • State Senate President Pro Tem Sharon Weston Broome says the Louisiana budget shortfall will, in some cases, leave 'no good choices.'

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