Louisiana House leadership puts funding for prison system, sheriffs on hold

 

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By Julia O’Donoghue, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune 

julia_odonoghue@nola.com

The Times-Picayune

 

It’s unclear how Louisiana is going to pay for salary increases already given to prison guards and housing for state inmates that local sheriffs provide after a lawmaker rejected a state revenue forecast that included enough money for these and other items. State Rep. Cameron Henry, R-Metairie, said he wanted to wait to make sure the money’s actually there before spending it.

Henry’s decision Tuesday (Nov. 27) during a meeting of the state’s Revenue Estimating Conference also leaves up in the air how lawmakers and Gov. John Bel Edwards would afford a pay raise for public school teachers next year. Under the forecast in place, the $1,000 teacher salary increase and $500 school staff pay bump the governor proposed would likely only happen if the money was taken from somewhere else in the budget.

 

Lawmakers built a budget earlier this year that included spending levels contingent on the state seeing more revenue than was projected at the time. In order to realize that extra money, the Revenue Estimating Conference has to sign off on a new, higher forecast that all but confirms the money is in hand.

Three members of the group – Commission of Administration Jay Dardenne, Senate President John Alario, R-Westwego, and LSU economist Jim Richardson – were willing to vote for an estimate a state economist brought forward Tuesday, showing an increase in state tax collections and other fees. Henry, who was standing in for House Speaker Taylor Barras at the meeting, was not.

“With near universal agreement that we should provide Louisiana teachers with a pay raise, the actions by Speaker Barras and Chairman Henry place the ability to fund that plan in jeopardy,” Edwards said in a statement after the meeting.

 

Henry said he only wanted to stall the adoption of the new forecast for a few months to make sure the higher projections for tax and fee collections hold. He isn’t trying to jeopardize a pay boost for teachers, he said.

“I assure you. You won’t get a no vote from me on teacher pay raises,” Henry said.

“It’s a concern for us,” Cynthia Posey, legislative director for the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, said in an interview. “I think possibly (Henry’s) objection was a little bit disingenuous.”

Waiting to adopt a new forecast for a few months could mean less money for the Department of Corrections, local sheriffs and others for at least several months. The Louisiana Legislature approved a spending plan in June that called for giving the state prison system, local sheriffs, the Office of Juvenile Justice and a few other agencies as much as $42 million more if revenue ended up being higher than originally budgeted.

 

But that $42 million can only be dispersed this budget cycle if the higher revenue forecast is put in place before Dec. 31, according to the budget lawmakers approved in June. It would also need approval from the Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget, made up of lawmakers, later this month. The prison system was slated to get $16.29 million, including $4 million to cover half of the prison guard’s pay raise for the year, and sheriffs were supposed to receive $10.6 million.

If approval of the new revenue forecast is delayed for a few months, some agencies might have to wait until the legislative session, which starts in April, for the extra money – if they get any at all. The prison system has already started paying its correctional officers more in anticipation of the higher revenue forecast getting approved.

Dardenne, the Edwards’ administration’s budget architect, said he will call another Revenue Estimating Conference meeting in the next few days with hope for a different outcome. It will be scheduled for a day when Barras, R-New Iberia, can personally attend, Dardenne said.

“I’m not comfortable with the situation, but usually cooler heads prevail,” said Jimmy LeBlanc, secretary of Louisiana’s Department of Correction, in an interview. “I have confidence in Commissioner Dardenne and the governor and President Alario.”

In an interview, Henry said he and Barras were on the same page about the revenue projections, and the House speaker would have objected the same way he did on Tuesday. Barras could not be reached for comment.

“He would have done absolutely nothing different than I did,” Henry said in an interview.

Henry said concerns the state economists brought up about the price of oil dropping, possibly larger state tax refunds going out to residents and uncertainty around corporate tax collection projections made him think the new revenue projection was shaky.

The economists, one of whom has been doing state revenue projections for decades, routinely point out portions of their forecasts they believe to be less certain. Legislative economist Greg Albrecht, specifically, mentions the unpredictable nature of corporate tax collections at almost every Revenue Estimating Conference meeting, but that usually does not delay the adoption of a new forecast.

Alario accused Henry of playing political games with the adoption of the revenue forecast in order to make it easier to implement budget cuts Henry failed to get during the legislative sessions. Last spring, Henry specifically pushed back against crafting the budget with contingency funding based on future revenue projections. He only went forward with the current spending plan, when it became obvious most other lawmakers didn’t share his objections.

Henry said his vote Tuesday reflected a genuine concern about whether the economists’ revenue forecasts were reliable over the long term. “I can assure you there is no game being played,” he said.

If Henry wanted to argue against spending money on those agencies, he could do so at the Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget meeting later this month, Alario said. Henry is the head of that committee, but other legislators sitting on it could overrule him. On the Revenue Estimating Conference, his vote Tuesday amounted to veto power over the other members.