BATON ROUGE, Louisiana — As they unravel Gov. Bobby Jindal's budget proposal for next year, lawmakers are finding cuts disguised as "efficiencies," gaps not disclosed by the administration and critical services reliant on shaky financing.
Members of the House Appropriations Committee are questioning whether the Republican governor has provided spending plans that might work through the final six months of Jindal's term, but that could leave them with a financial mess in the second half of the fiscal year after Jindal is term-limited and gone from office.
The committee, which is the first stop for crafting next year's budget, is nearly halfway through its department-by-department review on the $24 billion package of spending recommendations Jindal offered for the budget year that begins July 1.
In nearly each day of the hearings, a new point of concern emerges about the type of cuts proposed or about the financing maneuvers used to stave off reductions.
No money was included for Louisiana to hold a presidential primary in spring 2016. LSU hospital privatization deals rely largely on dollars that require lawmakers to scale back tax break spending, and the New Orleans hospital operator says it still would be more than $80 million short of what is needed to open its new facility this summer. The Medicaid program could have a $200 million gap even if all the uncertain financing assumptions pan out.
After hearing Jindal's budget proposal for the Secretary of State's Office wouldn't pay for elections past December — which also happens to be the governor's last month in office — Rep. Walt Leger said lawmakers need to comb through the spending plans carefully.
"It concerns me that there is a budget that has been recommended to us that authorizes funding for elections through the end of December and then beyond that, 'You're on your own,'" said Leger, D-New Orleans, the number two ranking House member.
"I think we as a committee need to be very wary of all of the budget units as it relates to funding past December," he said.
Rep. John Schroder, R-Covington, echoed similar worries during discussion of the proposed budget for the Department of Health and Hospitals.
House budget analysts told the Appropriations Committee the proposal is up to $200 million less than what the department estimated would be needed to cover the services expected to be used by Medicaid patients.
"Will we be dealing with a shortfall later?" Schroder asked Health and Hospitals Secretary Kathy Kliebert.
She replied, "I can't guarantee that we won't be. As we always do, we will try to manage the resources that are available."
Schroder said he worried the shortfall would show up in the Medicaid budget update given to lawmakers in October and the administration leaders "are going to shortly be gone," leaving the problem for others to fix.
"Why don't we deal with this now?" he asked.
The task facing Jindal and lawmakers is a tough one, to continue critical services around Louisiana while closing a $1.6 billion budget gap next year and complying with various restrictions and protections on spending areas.
The governor's also trying to do it without anything that could be considered a tax increase on his record as he looks likely to announce a presidential campaign this summer. Meanwhile, lawmakers who face re-election bids this fall are trying to keep voters — and campaign donors — contented.
Jindal proposes some ways to raise revenue, but those appear to be running into skepticism or outright opposition. The governor's restrictions against supporting anything that national anti-tax activist Grover Norquist considers a tax increase are further complicating budget negotiations with lawmakers.
When she introduced Jindal's budget proposal, Commissioner of Administration Kristy Nichols struck a conciliatory tone.
"This is going to be a long process. It's a marathon and I know that we have a lot of decisions to make together. And I expect that there will be changes and compromises," she told lawmakers.
Lawmakers first have to find all the holes and problem areas before they can start the compromising. The House budget committee continues its review until mid-April.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Melinda Deslatte covers the Louisiana Capitol for The Associated Press.
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