FILE - Louisiana State Capitol

The Louisiana State Capitol in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. (Ken Lund | Flickr via Creative Commons)

Legislators have filed competing budget bills for the upcoming session, breaking with the decades-long practice of having the governor’s proposed budget serve as the starting point for spending negotiations.

“This is the first time I can recall that we’ve seen anything like this,” said Barry Erwin, president and CEO of the Council for a Better Louisiana. “It looks like we’re going to have a few months of turmoil.”

State Rep. Cameron Henry, the Metairie Republican who chairs the House Appropriations Committee and the Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget, has filed House Bill 105 to provide for state government’s operating expenses during the fiscal year that begins July 1. Walt Leger, a New Orleans Democrat, has filed House Bill 103, which is based on Gov. John Bel Edwards’ proposed budget.

Leger’s bill would spend about $135 million more than Henry’s, Erwin said.

“The legislature will do their own budget,” Henry said in a video posted to social media. “It’s part of the independent process that we’ve been working towards.”

In his post, Henry says Edwards has not submitted a budget. Edwards has in fact submitted a budget proposal, though the administration says it is not an “executive budget” as defined by law.

By state constitution, statute and tradition, the governor submits an executive budget based on the state’s official revenue estimate, which then becomes House Bill 1. But House leaders have prevented the state’s Revenue Estimating Conference from adopting an official estimate for the upcoming fiscal year, citing uncertainty in the forecast.

The Edwards administration responded by using its own economist’s projection, which was one of the two options presented to the REC, to craft a budget proposal that includes about $9.74 billion in general fund spending. But some Republicans argue the administration should be bound by the last official REC projection adopted in June.

In an opinion issued Friday, Attorney General Jeff Landry, a Republican and staunch Edwards critic, accuses the governor of creating a “constitutional crisis.” Landry says the long-range forecast for the upcoming fiscal year that was adopted last summer, which projects about $9.6 billion in general fund revenue, is the “official forecast” as contemplated by the state constitution.

But Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne says the constitutional provisions should be read in tandem with a state statute that requires the REC to revise the official forecast by Jan. 1 “for the ensuing fiscal year which shall be utilized in the preparation of the executive budget.” Since House leadership caused the REC to break the law and violate the Jan. 1 deadline, there is no “official forecast” for the upcoming fiscal year, which means the administration legally cannot submit an executive budget, Dardenne says.

So what’s the difference between an “executive budget” and Edwards’ proposed budget? In practical terms, possibly not very much.

An executive budget is only a proposal anyway. Legislators have always been free to alter House Bill 1 or propose an alternate budget of their own.

A new official revenue estimate for the upcoming fiscal year almost certainly will be adopted in the near future. In the meantime, Edwards’ proposal lays out the administration’s spending priorities, which include more spending for K-12 education and higher ed.

The general taxpaying public doesn’t care which bill contains the final state spending plan, said Jan Moller, executive director of the Louisiana Budget Project, which focuses on how state policy affects low- and middle-income residents.

“They care that their health care stays intact and their university is funded and basic needs of the state are taken care of,” Moller said. However, he said, the wrangling over revenue speaks to a “dysfunctional relationship” between the executive and legislative branches, which is exacerbated by election-year politics.

Erwin, the CABL president, predicts legislators will adopt a budget that looks a lot like Edwards’ proposal.

“We’re going to go through a very difficult political process that’s certainly going to create a lot of tensions and angst when it seems like that would not be necessary,” he said.

The regular session begins April 8 and must end no later than June 6.

Staff Reporter

David Jacobs is a Baton Rouge-based award-winning journalist who has written about government, politics, business and culture in Louisiana for almost 15 years. He joined The Center Square in 2018.