Should the Legislature unlock the state’s dedicated funds to free up more money for the budget?
An affirmative answer is one of the war cries coming from Republicans in the House and Senate this session.
These are funds that, for one reason or another, were given special protections by the Legislature over the years. That means the money they’re holding can’t be accessed by lawmakers and used for other needs.
It’s a perennial topic at the Capitol. As universities and hospitals have seen their budgets cut, lawmakers have been barred from dipping into a variety of protected funds that could have helped ease the pain.
The debate on the importance of these protections will once again be an issue as lawmakers continue with their regular session that adjourns on June 8.
To be certain, extra cash is exactly what Gov. John Bel Edwards is calling for, although he has taken no firm stance on whether dedicated funds should be unlocked.
The governor’s executive budget has $440 million in needs that aren’t yet fully funded. There’s an additional $1.3 billion in temporary taxes that expire in 2018.
That’s why some lawmakers contend that this latest incarnation of the dedicated funds debate will bring with it some urgency.
To better understand the issue, here’s a look at the four categories of dedicated funds that some lawmakers want to open up:
— There are 19 constitutionally dedicated funds holding $2.5 billion in appropriations this fiscal year, according to information provided by the House Appropriations Committee. The TOPS Scholarship Fund and the Artificial Reef Fund are two examples.
— There are also 124 statutorily dedicated funds from special revenue sources such as fees and licenses holding $664 million. You can find the Boll Weevil Eradication Fund and the Concealed Handgun Permit Fund in this category.
— There are another 97 statutory funds for “local support,” including sales tax dedications, holding $70 million. These are largely local funds, like the East Baton Rouge Parish Community Improvement Fund and the Lake Charles Civic Center Fund.
— Finally, there are 42 statutory funds for agency and department support holding $716 million. This is money that would otherwise be a part of the state general fund. The Tobacco Settlement Enforcement Fund, Louisiana State Police Salary Fund and Fireman Training Fund are all examples.
You can review each of these funds and their totals on the LaPolitics website.
In terms of related policy pushes this session, House conservatives are looking with interest across Memorial Hall to Sen. Sharon Hewitt, R-Slidell, whose SB 226 would eliminate a number of funds — none of them constitutionally mandated.
Hewitt’s proposal uses criteria that the Legislature’s Joint Budget Committee is supposed to be applying during regular fund reviews. Those reviews, however, haven’t been taking place, said Hewitt.
Some lawmakers are already expressing support for the approach, which they feel is especially attractive compared to across-the-board reductions or eliminations.
“We cannot keep doing the things that we are doing now, and it’s time for us to helicopter up and look at the big picture,” Hewitt said. “We need to be willing to un-dedicate these funds and put all of the money on the table and then let the administration and Legislate prioritize spending.”
Her legislation has been assigned to the Senate Finance Committee, but a hearing hasn’t yet been scheduled.
Here are a few related bills worth keeping an eye on:
— HB 236 by Rep. Rob Shadoin, R-Ruston, is a constitutional amendment that goes after the constitutionally dedicated funds.
— HB 458 by Rep. Beryl Amedee, R-Houma, eliminates a handful of statutory dedications, but doesn’t go as far as Hewitt’s proposal.
— HB 588 by Rep. Jay Morris, R-Monroe, seeks to reduce by 50 percent the revenue dedications in certain funds.
Conservative Group Targets Lawmakers
Direct mail pieces started hitting the House districts of six Ways and Means Committee members during the first week of the regular session. Later, digital ads surfaced, as well.
Underwritten by Americans For Prosperity, a conservative advocacy group, the mailers focused opposition to a gas tax increase and the addition of new services to the state sales tax base.
The mailers included language that asked voters to contact their legislators and to tell them to “Say no to Gov. Edwards’ tax hike.”
The mailers also featured photographs of the governor and the individual lawmakers being targeted.
So far, the mailers have dropped in the districts of Chairman Neil Abramson, D-New Orleans, and Reps. Julie Stokes, R-Metairie; Paula Davis, R-Baton Rouge; Clay Schexnayder, R-Gonzales; Stephen Dwight, R-Lake Charles; and Mike Huval, R-Breaux Bridge.
“This is part of a larger strategy to educate citizens on policies being considered by their legislators and to give them the information needed to contact their representatives to make their voices heard,” said AFP state director John Kay. “It is our stance that the governor’s tax proposals are nothing more than the latest version of his ‘tax and spend’ song and dance. We believe that tax and budget reform are in order, and his office has presented nothing of the sort.”
Battle Of The PACs Begins
An “armed and ready” Louisiana-based super PAC called Truth In Politics started taking aim at Gov. John Bel Edwards not long after lawmakers convened their spring regular session.
With start-up funding from a group of well-connected donors such as Cajun Industries founder Lane Grigsby and a fundraising operation headed up by Allee Bautsch, who helped build the campaign war chests of former Gov. Bobby Jindal, the group will operate under a large umbrella that will include 501(c)3 structures.
Media consultants have already been hired.
While such threats aren’t uncommon in today’s political landscape, those involved with Truth In Politics insist the effort isn’t a flash in the pan and that organizers are committed to three years of engagement.
Television, radio, billboards and polling are all part of the larger game plan as Edwards inches toward re-election and navigates one tumultuous session after another.
Kelli Bottger, currently the state director of the Louisiana Federation for Children, will be transitioning away from that position to lead Truth In Politics. “We’re going to be an accountability hub,” she said. “And we have the whole kitchen sink coming. We’re ready.”
While the focus will be on Edwards, his politics and his policy agenda, Bottger said other elected officials may be taken to task as well by the group.
This creates a possible PAC-against-PAC face-off with Rebuild Louisiana, the pro-Edwards organization being operated by Baton Rouge consultant Trey Ourso. He said he welcomes the competition and plans to place “an emphasis on truth” as the anti-JBE group gears up. “We wouldn’t want a PAC named that telling lies about the governor,” he said with a laugh.
The attacks actually started last week, with a Truth In Politics digital ad called “Louisiana’s Hurting.” It claims the governor “raised taxes on nearly everything” last year. The spot also seeks to undermine the administration’s session agenda.
Meanwhile, Ourso’s outfit, Rebuild Louisiana, started circulating an internal poll that showed wide support for the governor’s session plan.
A PAC is a political action committee regulated by the state Ethics Administration. Sometimes they oppose or support candidates. In other instances, they might just push a single issue.
PACs can be structured in different ways — for example, a super PAC is allowed to raise unlimited donations and doesn’t have to follow the same giving guidelines as standard PACs.
North Louisiana Run-Off
Raymond Crews continues his charmed candidacy in the House District 8 run-off, getting endorsements from U.S. Sen. John Kennedy, Congressman Mike Johnson, Attorney General Jeff Landry and retired Air Force Col. Rob Maness.
With the bulk of Baton Rouge’s business lobby behind him as well, Crews enters the April 29 run-off against Robbie Gatti with a political wind at his back.
But Gatti, a fellow Republican, is by no means going it alone. His brother — Sen. Ryan Gatti, R-Bossier City — is a legislator; he’s well-liked in his church community; Bossier City Mayor Lo Walker is behind him; and the American Physical Therapist Assoc. has endorsed his campaign.
The Louisiana Federation for Children, however, has been pouring money into the race to help Crews push past the finish line, with radio and mail continuing in the run-off. The total investment could potentially end up being somewhere north of $80,000.
Locally, you couldn’t find a hotter race — especially after the opposition research dump on Gatti in the primary, which largely surfaced on TheHayride.com. That research questioned everything from personal to business decisions.
Rep. Alan Seabaugh, R-Shreveport, among others, has been hands-on. Seabaugh, for his part, recently took to Facebook with this line: “Louisiana can not afford another Gatti in the Louisiana Legislature.”
The Governor’s Special Guest: His Brother
Gov. John Bel Edwards had a special guest on the House floor with him during his session-opening speech — his brother, Tangipahoa Parish Sheriff Daniel Edwards. It was yet another show of support from the governor for his sibling.
According to The Advocate, “the FBI has launched an investigation into a fraudulent bail-bond scheme within the Tangipahoa Parish Sheriff’s Office, bringing fresh federal scrutiny to the administration of Sheriff Daniel Edwards.”
The sheriff is declining to comment on the investigation, while the governor told Baton Rouge’s daily newspaper in December, “without any fear of contradiction or ever being proven wrong, I will tell you now, he did not engage in anything improper, much less illegal.”
JBE Has Leadership PAC, Too
Not to be outdone by the donor forces acting against him — and in an effort to help groups like Rebuild Louisiana — supporters of Gov. John Bel Edwards quietly established a leadership PAC last year to help further his agenda.
The John Bel Edwards For Louisiana Leadership PAC is definitely off to a much slower start than the official Edwards campaign, which raised an impressive $3.3 million last year, with roughly that much in the bank as of Feb. 15.
The leadership PAC, being run by Robert and Gwen Barsley of Ponchatoula, raised $77,000 in 2016 and has $65,000 cash on hand.
They Said It
“Special sessions are getting expensive to absorb. We are going to have to lay off five Democrats.”
— Senate President John Alario, R-Westwego, discussing the legislative budget
“A good tax is one someone else pays, and a bad one is one I pay.”
— Rep. Kenny Havard, R-St. Francisville.
For more Louisiana political news, visit www.LaPolitics.com or follow Jeremy Alford on Twitter @LaPoliticsNow.