There’s a wrinkle in the state House’s push to pay down debt, state budget chief says

There's a wrinkle in the state House's push to pay down debt, state budget chief says

For weeks during a legislative session dedicated to fiscal issues, House Republicans have argued that Louisiana should keep its spending below a constitutionally imposed limit, and instead use extra cash to pay down state debts. 

But Gov. John Bel Edwards’ administration said Tuesday that the House-approved budget, which he opposes, actually passed the state’s threshold by nearly $200 million. 

That could further snarl budget talks, which have already created one of the most pronounced rifts of the legislative session, as the session’s June 8 end date looms.

“It all comes back to interpretation of what’s an appropriation,” Senate President Page Cortez, R-Lafayette, said in an interview.

House and Senate leadership will meet with fiscal staff in the coming days to hash out the dilemma, Cortez said.

Spending debates ramped up in recent days as Cortez seeks to marshal super-majorities in both the House and the Senate. A two-thirds vote is required in each chamber for the state to spend the unprecedented amount of extra money in the treasury to fix roads, repair university buildings and restore the state’s eroding coast.

Bucking Cortez and Edwards, who favor surpassing the so-called expenditure limit in the interest of completing those projects, the House advanced a budget package that stripped out a number of Edwards’ education priorities and instead proposed using hundreds of millions of extra tax dollars to pay down state pension debt.

Edwards’ administration disagrees on whether some of those debt payments count towards the limit, Cortez told the Senate on Tuesday. Jacques Berry, a spokesman for Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne, Edwards’ chief budget architect, said the administration believes the House-approved budget package exceeds the spending limit by $193 million.

Rep. Jerome “Zee” Zeringue, R-Houma and the House Appropriations Committee chair, who shepherded the House version of the budget, said he and House staff still believe that paying off debt wouldn’t count towards the expenditure limit. He echoed Cortez’s sentiment that the disagreement comes down to what exactly constitutes an appropriation.

“We will work through this,” Zeringue said. “We have to, to ensure that we can finalize the budget. We’ll incorporate any additional information we may get, but we’re confident in our position and the numbers that have been presented.”

House fiscal staff have issued a different analysis than the view delivered by the administration, saying the House-approved budget does fall beneath the expenditure limit, Cortez told the Senate.

If budget negotiations fail or Edwards opposes the version of the budget package that ends up on his desk, the Legislature could be called back to Baton Rouge for a special session. Each chamber has to marshal three-quarters majorities to pass the main budget bill, House Bill 1, in a special budget session, putting pressure on legislators to reach an agreement before June 8.

Staff writer Tyler Bridges contributed to this report.


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