ICYMI: WAITING ON THE BUDGET

Legislators have begin their fourth week of the regular session. Soon the House and Senate will have a month behind them, and another two to go, but few if any of its members can actually predict what is going to happen to the session's centerpiece bill — the state budget.

While there's an important timing issue that needs to be resolved, lawmakers also have no clue what the budget is going to look like when and if it emerges from its starting point in the House Appropriations Committee. Moreover, it's unknown if the budget, found in HB 1, will get enough votes in the House to make it over to the Senate.

Many Capitol observers, however, consider it a safe bet that the Appropriations Committee will endorse deep cuts for the budget, as opposed to the spending Gov. John Bel Edwards put in his original draft of the bill.

Senate President John Alario said he hopes those cuts will be as detailed as possible. "I’m hoping they’ll do it by category, by specific programs, to see what programs they are going to cut," he said. "In the past they've taken the position of putting a certain percentage in the preamble of HB 1 and telling the governor to go ahead and cut 5 percent or 10 percent or whatever they come up with. Then we go home and we have no idea what those cuts are going to be… Then the governor makes those cuts and those people who asked him to do that criticize him for making those cuts."

Edwards and Alario have agreed to end the regular session early, in mid-May, to make time for the year's second special session, which they want to conclude by June 4, the same day the regular session would have otherwise adjourned. That special session is needed to consider tax proposals, which can only be introduced in regular sessions during odd-numbered years.

The early adjournment plan, however, has not yet been fully embraced by House Speaker Taylor Barras. Like other conservatives in the lower chamber, Barras wants to see if the Revenue Estimating Conference identifies any new dollars for the state next fiscal year. The REC is charged with helping determine shortfalls and windfalls, and the best guess around the Capitol these days is that the budget gap is around $700 million, although some House Republicans believe it could be lower. "I hope that by mid-April we have a Revenue Estimating Conference meeting," said Barras, I plan to call one."

That means the Appropriations Committee is likely following the same schedule. "On our calendar that we’re using now, from what I can estimate, certainly by the third week of April we would have finished testimony (on the budget) and will have gone through all of the departments at that point," Barras added. "If the REC meeting can be held right around that time, and if our economists are available to do that and I hope they are, we should be able to incorporate (any updated forecast) as we send (the budget) over to the Senate."

But, again, no one's willing to make any promises. "It’s kind of hard to call right now whether it gets 53 votes to send it over," the speaker said, "depending on the level of revenue and cuts that are in it."

While lawmakers will be in session until June 4, one way or another, the House and Senate do not need to pass a budget until the final day of June, when the current fiscal year ends. That has some representatives and senators wondering if they actually have more time than what's allotted by the ongoing regular session.

Regardless, the political lay of the land leaves the Senate, once again, in a wait-and-see position. When asked about his recent meetings, phone calls and emails to and from House members, Alario said, "Well, I have good communications with the speaker of the House. I find he is a gentleman. He has always been responsive and I try to do the same for him. Of course, he has a responsibility to go back to the House to talk with his membership, as I do. But it just seems a little slower getting an answer back sometimes than I would like to have."

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