Budget changes set stage for political brawl

In a dramatic shift away from the Edwards Administration’s priorities, the House Appropriations Committee advanced a state budget on Monday that gives the attorney general autonomous spending control, eliminates the office of inspector general, reverses cuts to a free college tuition program and reallocates funding reductions for safety-net hospitals.

In recent history at least, the Appropriations Committee has traditionally rubber-stamped the executive budget proposal presented by the sitting governor, but its final actions on HB 1, which contains the budget, could be charting a course for a political collision with the House on one side and the Senate and Gov. John Bel Edwards on the other.

The budget changes were driven by Appropriations Chairman Cameron Henry, R-Metairie, and were a surprise to many on the committee who had no clue such sweeping alterations were in store. The budget bill now moves to the House, which has a solid conservative majority.

Edwards, the first Democratic governor to be elected in the Deep South in 12 years, seems to have more support in the Senate, which will likely make its own changes to the budget bill — that are more in line with what the governor initially proposed — beginning next week.

A House floor vote on HB 1, meanwhile, could come as early as Thursday.

Speaking with reporters at the Baton Rouge Press Club about the committee vote, Edwards said he had some concerns with the suggested changes and described the across-the-board cuts and the reshuffling of offices as “not the right thing to do.”

The biggest surprise to come out of the first committee vote involved removing the office of the attorney general from the main budget bill in HB 1 and allowing it to have its own standalone appropriations bill.

“We want to try budgeting differently than we have in the past,” Henry said of the change, adding it would give the attorney general more flexibility.

It would also give the Division of Administration, which is the governor’s budgeting arm, less authority over controlling the attorney general’s spending.

Rep. Pat Smith, D-Baton Rouge, suggested that such a move would push Attorney General Jeff Landry toward becoming a “loose cannon.” Speaker Pro Tem Walt Leger, D-New Orleans, said that a standalone budget could face constitutional challenges down the line.

Landry’s office, which requested the amendment, released this comment to reporters: “The attorney general is a separate, elected constitutional officer.”

Breaking from others who preceded him, Landry has been taking more initiative during his first year in office to intervene in cases the state is involved with — and he’s repeating his constitutional authority to do so with or without input from the governor.

Landry’s ability to control his own budget, rather than being part of the executive budget proposal, is an extension of this developing political narrative.

Another budget amendment eliminated all funding for the inspector general’s office, which operates as an independent watchdog agency.

Henry argued that the office duplicates services already offered by state police, the attorney general and legislative auditors.

Inspector General Stephen Street said his office actually generates money for the state and is the only investigative arm with no political ties. Eliminating an office that can actually investigate the Legislature sends a bad message, he said.

“The optics of that are horrible for our state,” Street said.

After Edwards downsized the free college tuition program by $183 million in his executive budget proposal, the committee voted to reverse that reduction and found the money needed to make TOPS whole.

The money was taken from various departments and agencies using across-the-board cuts.

In other action, the committee also voted to overturn Edwards’ decision to fund only five out of the state’s nine safety net hospitals. Instead, members reallocated that overall funding reduction in a manner that all of the hospitals would now have to share in the cuts.Holden ready for congressional runAs the contest to succeed him shapes up in his hometown, Baton Rouge Mayor Kip Holden is looking more and more like a southeast Louisiana congressional candidate with each passing day.

He told LaPolitics last month that he would be a candidate in the 2nd Congressional District, but later told a RedStick newspaper that he was not 100 percent sure.

Either way, Holden has filed the paperwork for his campaign committee — “Melvin Kip Holden For Congress.” It was created last month, on April 19.

Should he qualify, Holden will be running against incumbent Congressman Cedric Richmond in a district that has long favored New Orleans pols but was redrawn to include parts of the greater Baton Rouge region and some rural parishes.Both men are DemocratsBig business: No settlement on coastal suits

Now that the state has intervened in the high-profile lawsuits filed by three coastal parishes against dozens of oil and gas companies, does that mean Louisiana officials are negotiating a global settlement?

That is “absolutely false,” according to a letter sent to parish presidents and local officials last week by the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry; the Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association; and the Louisiana Oil and Gas Association.

“In some instances, local officials have even been encouraged to file new lawsuits they weren’t even contemplating or to reinstate lawsuits they had already rescinded out of fear that they may be ‘left out’ of settlement negotiations,” the letter reads.

The letter goes on, “Whatever their outcome, these lawsuits are not a funding mechanism for state or local government budgets, including parish general funds.”They Said It“I’m not a Rockefeller. I’m a little feller.” —Rep. James Armes, D-Leesville

 

About Jeremy Alford 212 Articles
Jeremy Alford is an independent journalist and the co-author of LONG SHOT, which recounts Louisiana's 2015 race for governor. His bylines appear regularly in The New York Times and he has served as an on-camera analyst for CNN, FOX News, MSNBC and C-SPAN.

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