Last week's main attraction was House Bill 1, aka "The Budget Bill."
The entire week revolved around the debates and discussion of how to best address our state's budget, both now and in the future. I discuss below the detailed and ever-changing process that continues to unfold.
HB 1 (Budget Bill)- Back in Committee following approved Amendments
My position: AGAINST the Amendment (discussed below).
After being discussed in Appropriations Committee since February, the bill passed out of that committee with a favorable vote of 22 to 2 and moved to the House floor on Thursday. There, it was met with strong opposition by some members because of the use of "one-time money" to balance the budget.
The bill then returned to the calendar while members worked on a plan to balance the budget without the use of the one-time money.
After 24 hours of political posturing and discussion of the pros and cons, members returned on Friday to complete the task.
An amendment was brought by the Vice Chairman of the Appropriations Committee that only narrowly passed with a vote of 51 to 50 after another day of heated debate.
This amendment allows the Commissioner of Administration, Paul Rainwater, to choose where additional cuts would be made so that "one-time money" would not be used.
Commissioner Rainwater has stated in an earlier letter to the House that if directed by the House of Representatives to reduce the FY 13 budget, he would make such reductions in the following areas that rely primarily on discretionary General Funds:
n Higher Education (including vocational/technical colleges)
n Department of Health and Hospitals
n LSU's Health Care Services Division
n Department of Education
n Office of Juvenile Justice
n Department of Children and Family Services
n Department of Corrections
Why this Position?
Idealistically, no one wants to use the one-time money; but is it practical not to? Not using such one-time funds as a "band-aid" is a principle that sounds great on the news, but the impacts of abrupt cuts of an additional $269 million (which is what the use of one-time money would have prevented) after already having reduced the annual budget by $300 million just this year would be detrimental — jobs, programs, infrastructure would be additionally seriously impacted all at once.
Many representatives, including myself, feared that we would be "cutting off our nose to spite our face" given that we have already seriously reduced the budget, overhead, positions and program expenditures since February, 2012.
It took years for us as a state to get in this terrible financial position—and it's going to take wise planning to get us in better shape. That's likely something we cannot safely accomplish in one year without substantially jeopardizing the livelihoods of thousands and many of the services and projects we have planned around.
Additionally, most citizens are not aware that recently multiple state departments took independent action and greatly reduced their staff and streamlined their budgets as a reaction to our financial crisis and impending budget cuts.
n State employee headcount has been reduced by more than 12 percent
n Full-time employees have been reduced by more than 16 percent
n State contracts have been reduced by more than 24 percent
n State contract costs have been reduced by 30 percent
n In 2012 alone, just shy of $300 million was eliminated from the annual budget through layoffs and restructuring of programs and service provisions.
That said, we still have more work to do to get out of the red on a recurring basis. There are available hold-back funds (these one-time funds) that the state has set aside for such uses; however, this new amendment no longer allows for these funds to be used this year. Therefore, we have still not solved the problem for covering this year's overhead.
I voted AGAINST the amendment for a few specific reasons:
n Additional cuts would be extremely difficult on all citizens given our recent reductions;
n Leaving authority to one person (who is not elected by citizens) to decide where to cut is not wise;
n Proposed cuts would negatively impact our district, specifically.
There was a comment made during the debate to "cut the fat." While I agree there is definitely such a need in certain areas, I am also aware that one man's fat could be another man's vital service.
Such cuts must be discussed by all, and everyone must be willing to compromise. That cannot be done under this amendment.
We elect representation from each district for a reason—because it is impossible for one person to have a full understanding of what jobs, services and programs are beneficial, effective, and/or relevant (or not beneficial, effective, and/or relevant) to each district and region of the state.
This is why I am not comfortable with giving the authority for more than $250 million in cuts to the Commissioner of Administration when we, as citizens, did not elect him to do so, and because such an action offers our district no specific representation regarding potential cuts to vital services that could/would have a negative effect on our region.
I do not want to see our region of the state take the brunt of these cuts, and I feel the only way to ensure fair compromise takes place is to utilize our representation. This cannot be done under this amendment.
Because the additional proposed cuts would jeopardize several local and regional programs specifically including our district's new vocational/technical college, LSU Medical Center, LSUS, Tourism, Camp Minden projects and Council on Aging, I did not support this amendment.
Also, additional proposed cuts to the Department of Education would further jeopardize our public schools and future charter schools.
HB 1 is now being debated in the Senate Finance Committee for changes and approval, and then it will move on to the Senate floor for more changes and approval before it comes back to the House for final approval.
It is still possible that many more changes may take place before the final vote is called.
HB 9-(Retirement Benefits)- PASSED, House of Representatives
My position: FOR
This bill passed the House by a vote of 101-0. This is a proposed constitutional amendment that authorizes the legislature to provide for the forfeiture of all or part of the benefits from a public retirement system, plan or fund in this state by any person who holds or held any public office or employment and who is convicted of a felony committed during his public service.
The legislature may provide for the application of all or part of any forfeited benefits to the unfunded accrued liability of the system, plan or fund.
The provisions of House Bill 9 would apply only to persons employed, re-employed or elected on or after Jan. 1, 2013. House Bill 9 would be submitted for voter approval at the statewide election held Nov. 6, 2012.
It has now been assigned to the Senate Retirement Committee.
Why this Position?
I supported this bill because I believe, as did all of the representatives, that our public funds should not pay for the retirement of someone who is convicted of a felony while employed by and funded by our state tax dollars.
This will provide for additional revenues to come back to us in the event this occurs. Additionally, I supported offering this up for public vote by our citizens.
Other Bills Pending final passage by the House include the following:
HB 327 (State Contracts) which provides that the total dollar amount for professional, personal and consulting service contracts under the office of contractual review (OCR) for Fiscal Year 2012-2013 shall be reduced by 10 percent of the total dollar amount for such contracts for Fiscal Year 2011-2012.
HB 328 (State Employee Reductions) which would make personnel reductions in state government. Under this proposal, a minimum of 5,000 positions in the executive branch of state government would be eliminated over three successive fiscal years, beginning with Fiscal Year 2012-2013, and would provide for a reduction in personnel expenditures of at least $500 million by the beginning of the Fiscal Year 2015-2016.
Such bills propose methods of gradually reducing our state's annual budget and improving our financial health.
Since our state truthfully has no idea how much money will be required to administer the newly-passed education reform bills, I feel it is even more imperative that we seek ways to reduce expenses, save funds and plan for the future so that we can prevent returning to such a fiscal state as we are currently in. I welcome your feedback, comments, ideas and concerns.