‘A much easier session’: La. income panel breaks revenue gridlock, adopts brighter forecast

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Louisiana’s income forecasting panel dislodged a five-month logjam Wednesday, moving to adopt funds that could help the Legislature craft a formal budget.

House Speaker Taylor Barras, a New Iberia Republican, joined fellow members of the state’s Revenue Estimating Conference in recognizing an additional $110 million in tax collections for this year and another $119 million for next year.

“I’ve been accused of ignoring the economists’ views, and I don’t want to do that unnecessarily,” Barras said at Wednesday’s meeting.

Barras had been the lone holdout among the four-person panel, which requires unanimity to update revenue projections. Since November, either the speaker or his proxy had refused to raise the outlook, citing past inaccuracies by state economists.

“We have multiple times been aggressive with our estimates, only to come back halfway through the year and having to make mid-year budget cuts,” Barras told BRProud.com. “That’s what I was hoping to avoid.”

Barras’ repeated rejections had left him at odds with Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards, who accused the speaker of election-year posturing. The House Republican leader said Wednesday that while he still has reservations, he feels more comfortable with the forecast state economists have provided.

“At some point, you’ve got to go with the number you have,” he said. “That’s why I was hoping to wait until today to reach that number.”

The adoption of a rosier income outlook leaves lawmakers a flexibility that counters the austerity of recent years. Legislators have until June 6 to approve a budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1.

“It’s going to be a much easier session than what we’ve seen in the past, because there’s no uncertainty about revenue,” said Jay Dardenne, the governor’s chief budget adviser and a Revenue Estimating Conference member. “We now have an estimate. It’s only a question of how that’s going to be spent.”

Rep. Cameron Henry, the Metairie Republican who heads the House Appropriations Committee, is poised to plug the $119 million from next year’s projection into his operating budget bill.

Legislators will likely put $100 million in newly recognized revenue toward pay raises for public school employees. Edwards has recommended boosting teacher salaries by $1,000, while giving school support staff another $500.

“A teacher pay raise is not in jeopardy in any regard,” Dardenne said. “It’s going to happen. I think everybody has already indicated they support it.”

“We have some very dedicated teachers, and I know firsthand what they live through and go through on a regular basis,” said Barras, whose wife is a retired teacher. “In some ways, the $1,000 the governor has proposed doesn’t seem like enough, but it’s certainly a step in the right direction.”

The added $110 million expected this fiscal year — plus a $308 million surplus from the end of last year — could appear in a supplemental spending plan.

How legislators will spend the other newly recognized dollars remains unclear. Some possible venues include higher education, public safety and child welfare programs. Barras has suggested leaving a share of the funds unspent.

The brighter income forecast is still a bit lower than what Edwards wanted, but the governor himself praised the update in a statement Wednesday.

“This action by the [Revenue Estimating Conference] proves what we have known since the middle of last year — that for the first time in a decade, Louisiana has an improving economy and budget surpluses,” Edwards said. “There is no challenge too great for us to overcome if we work together in good faith.”

It’s unknown whether Barras’ delay in recognizing the forecast has set a precedent for future years. The speaker suggested that pushing adoptions until later in the fiscal year would offer lawmakers more accurate figures with which to pass balanced budgets.

“I think a spring adoption is a more prudent way to do it,” he told reporters after Wednesday’s meeting. “No doubt about it.”

Barras’ remarks met quick opposition from Dardenne, who argued that waiting until April left multiple state agencies on edge this year.

“Hopefully we will not have a situation like this again,” Dardenne said. “This is not the way the business of the people should be handled.”

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