From the Hammond Star
Efforts to trim $1.6 billion from the $25.7 billion state budget next year may produce one of the most contentious and ugly legislative sessions ever, state Sen. Jack Donahue said during a legislative luncheon of the Ponchatoula Chamber of Commerce Wednesday.
Donahue and state Rep. Steve Pugh were guest speakers during the luncheon at Rockefeller’s Restaurant. Both are on legislative redistricting committees that will recommend how new state political boundaries will be drawn following the 2010 census, including legislative districts.
They were scheduled to speak primarily on the statewide redistricting process, but much of the discussion revolved around state budget cuts, especially their impact on higher education. Southeastern President John Crain was among those attending.
Asked about a 16-point plan by state Treasurer John Kennedy to get state finances back in the black, Donahue said having a plan and getting it implemented are two different things.
One problem with Kennedy’s plan is that it calls for eliminating 15,000 state employees through attrition. However, the Legislature has decided to reduce the state payroll by 5 percent annually for three years, and Donahue said that goal cannot be met using attrition.
Almost half of the state’s $25.7 billion budget is federal money, leaving about $13 billion from which to cut.
See BUDGET, 3A
Of that, $4.6 billion is dedicated, Donahue said. Also, $1.7 billion is from agency fees, with most of the money going back to the agencies for their operational expenses, leaving the Legislature with about $7.7 billion to “play with,” or juggle in an effort to balance the budget.
Of that amount, $5.1 billion is non-discretionary, leaving only about $2.6 billion in discretionary funds that can be cut. It’s from that $2.6 billion that the $1.6 billion deficit must be addressed, he said.
The higher education budget comprises 37 percent of the $2.6 billion, and health care costs comprise 29 percent. “Other” agency budgets make up 34 percent.
“That’s why higher ed and health care are taking such big cuts. It’s a serious problem,” Donahue said.
He said resolving the state’s money problems is not as easy as it might seem.
He said the higher education cuts affect the ability of the state to provide an educational environment for students so that they will remain in Louisiana when they graduate.
Donahue said he wants to ask Gov. Bobby Jindal to assemble the best higher education finance minds in the state for a financial summit on higher education. No one would come out of the room until a solution is reached, he said.
He said as an engineering graduate, he personally knows the value of education.
“We need someone to come up with a solution to allocate the proper amount of money to higher education and health care,” he said.
He said shedding 15,000 state employees is expected to save $1 billion.
Donahue said the state spends a lot of money policing casinos. It may be time to look at why the casinos shouldn’t be policing themselves, he said.
He said the state has millions of square feet of property “just sitting,” creating a maintenance cost that needs attention.
Pugh said Louisiana must maintain its financial integrity and must continue to push economic development as a means for generating revenue.
Commenting on redistricting, he said many citizens did not respond to the recent census count, probably because they did not understand its importance in terms of federal funding. Every person counted by the census means $1,300 per capita for the area for the next 10 years.
Pugh said the house and senate governmental affairs committees, which will undertake the redistricting, will get to work when the new census figures are received about mid-February. The senate committee will draft a plan for senate redistricting, and the house committee will draft a plan for house districts, appeals courts, the state Public Service Commission and the Board of Elementary & Secondary Education.
The committees will then go statewide to present the plans to the public. Then, about March 25, the Legislature will go into special session to adopt the proposals. The plans then go to the U.S. Department of Justice.
If they are approved by the DOJ, all will be fine, he said. However, Pugh said if problems arise with the plans, they will likely come from the DOJ.
The plans must be finalized by August in time for the October elections.
He said it is his understanding that a judge in New Orleans already intends to challenge whatever plans are proposed.
“So we will be facing at least one lawsuit,” Pugh said.
Asked about a possible state constitutional convention to eliminate budget balancing restrictions, Donahue said he does not see that happening any time soon. A major problem with a constitutional convention is it is impossible to predict what it will produce. Also, Jindal is not supportive of a constitutional convention, he said.
Donahue and Pugh were asked about a purported move to integrate Northshore political systems with those of Orleans and Jefferson parishes. Donahue agreed such a move is likely during the reapportionment process. It would be difficult to resist, but he said he questions if mixing Northshore and Southshore politics would be feasible.
Pugh said a house district is comprised of about 43,000 people, and a senate district of about 110,000.
Donahue said he disagrees with Pugh on the proposal to have one state senator represent Tangipahoa Parish. He said he is not confident the parish would receive the same level of representation as it now gets with three senators.
Asked about using money from the state’s “rainy day” fund to help offset the deficit, Donahue said the Legislature withdrew $198 million from the fund last session. The law says the money must be replaced within the same year it was withdrawn, although some lawmakers question that. Donahue said conditions were met to withdraw the money, but he questions if anything can be accomplished by the state trying to repay the money the same year it was withdrawn.