BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — When they wrapped up their special session, Louisiana lawmakers left nearly $106 million of the state’s surplus undecided, socked away into a fund for spending or saving at a later date.
Louisiana had a nearly $535 million surplus left after closing the books from the 2018-19 budget year. While previous legislatures have spent any surplus dollars available, the majority-Republican House and Senate took a different approach this time, citing the uncertainty of state finances because of the coronavirus pandemic.
They steered about 20% of the money — $105.9 million — into a new fund, so they can decide either in the fall or early next year if they want to use the money for favored projects or move it into Louisiana’s “rainy day” fund.
“We don’t know what the economy’s going to do, so if we do come back in special (session) in the fall, that’s just another tool we’ll have,” said House Ways and Means Chairman Stuart Bishop, the Lafayette Republican who led the push to keep surplus dollars unspent. “Saving it makes more sense than spending it right now.”
Under constitutional rules governing surplus dollars, lawmakers had to use $53 million to pay down retirement debt, and to steer another $134 million to the rainy day fund. Lawmakers made those deposits as mandated, leaving them $347 million available for spending on certain constitutionally allowed one-time expenses, such as debt payments, coastal restoration work, construction projects or savings.
Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards proposed using all the remaining surplus on roadwork, coastal restoration projects and state building repairs that he said would help create jobs as Louisiana recovers from the coronavirus outbreak. He argued the state has significant needs with backlogs of projects in all those areas — and could use the stimulative effect of the construction work.
House Speaker Clay Schexnayder and Senate President Page Cortez, both Republicans, ended up agreeing with Bishop’s approach — though only partially, amid resistance from legislators not used to leaving dollars unspent.
Bishop sought to set aside even more of the surplus than the final legislative deal sent to the governor, but he said he ran into “a ton” of pushback from lawmakers who “wanted to spend everything.”
Under the final agreement across a package of bills, the Legislature spent $241.5 million of the remaining surplus on coastal protection measures, roadwork and other preferred projects, and they left the $105.9 million in the newly-created fund for a later decision.
“We thought it prudent to hold some money back” to make decisions about when the Legislature returns for an expected special session sometime around October, Cortez said.
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By MELINDA DESLATTE Associated Press