House budget committee opens hearings on Jindal's $24.6B proposal for next year

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State Reps. Roy Burrell, D-Shreveport, left, and Franklin Foil, R-Baton Rouge, read through financial documents as the House Appropriations Committee opened its budget hearings, Tuesday, March 17, 2015, in Baton Rouge, La. (AP Photo/Melinda Deslatte)


State Reps. Nick Lorusso, R-New Orleans, left; Helena Moreno, D-New Orleans, center; and Johnny Berthelot, R-Gonzales, review financial documents as the House Appropriations Committee opened its budget hearings, Tuesday, March 17, 2015, in Baton Rouge, La. (AP Photo/Melinda Deslatte)


BATON ROUGE, Louisiana — Louisiana House budget committee members began four weeks of hearings Tuesday on Gov. Bobby Jindal's $24.6 billion proposed spending plan for next year, with concerns about the depth of possible cuts.

The state faces a $1.6 billion budget gap in the fiscal year that begins July 1.

Some lawmakers are skeptical about the governor's recommendations for raising new dollars to close part of the shortfall, particularly a proposal to scale back spending on tax break programs that pay out more in credits than taxes owed.

The House Appropriations Committee is doing a department-by-department review of Jindal's proposal that forms the starting point of legislative budget negotiations. Members of the public can offer comments about Jindal's proposals during April 14 and 15 meetings.

On the opening day of the hearings, several topics drew interest from lawmakers:

INSPECTOR GENERAL

Rep. Johnny Berthelot, R-Gonzales, questioned the need to continue operating the inspector general's office, which investigates allegations of fraud and misspending in executive branch agencies.

Berthelot told Inspector General Stephen Street that his office seems to duplicate investigatory functions of the attorney general and the Louisiana State Police.

"With the budget problems we have, Mr. Street, we're taking a hard look at you," Berthelot said.

Street defended his agency's performance, saying it identified $17.6 million in fraud and misspending last year with a $1.7 million budget. He said his office is working several criminal cases and has successfully battled fraud in the state's film tax credit program.

"These are the cases other elected officials won't touch because of the politics," Street said.

In 2012, the House tried to strip funding for the inspector general, but senators restored the money at the urging of several government watchdog organizations.


INDIGENT DEFENSE

Lawmakers worried about the governor's proposal to shrink spending on the Louisiana Public Defender Board.

The board monitors and assists the state's 42 judicial district offices that provide attorneys for people too poor to afford lawyers. It also contracts with nonprofits to handle appeals in death penalty cases for poor clients.

State Public Defender James Dixon said there are already "restrictions in services" in seven parishes because of funding shortages: East Baton Rouge, East Feliciana, West Feliciana, Bossier, Webster, LaSalle and Vernon parishes.

He said more parish public defenders' offices are on the edge.

"We need a reliable and stable and adequate funding source that will not fluctuate from year to year," Dixon told the committee.

Jindal's budget proposes spending $33.4 million on the indigent defense board next year, a $728,000 drop from this year.

Rep. Alan Seabaugh, R-Shreveport, said lawmakers are hearing from public defender offices around the state about financing concerns.


HISTORICAL DATA

The nonpartisan House Fiscal Division gave committee members pages of historical data about Louisiana's annual budget, including a 12-year comparison of spending levels.

The documents show the governor's $24 billion proposal for the upcoming 2015-16 year would be $6.7 billion larger than the state's spending in the 2004-05 fiscal year. Half of the increase is tied to the growth in federal financing, according to the data.

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