The Louisiana House and Senate worked behind the scenes Thursday to resolve an impasse over how to spend $2.2 billion in extra cash, though the end of the legislative workday brought few solutions.
With just a week left in the 60-day legislative session, the Senate has yet to release its budget package, including proposals for how to spend the largesse — a source of weeks of political heartburn in the State Capitol. In the House, some conservatives became frustrated with the delay and refused Wednesday to move forward a measure lifting a key spending limit until the Senate revealed its spending plan.
"Why are we in the House the only ones who have to rush this process? Why are we still waiting on the Senate?" Rep. Blake Miguez, R-New Iberia and the House Republican Caucus chairman, asked colleagues on the House floor Wednesday.
Raising the spending limit requires a two-thirds majority vote in each chamber. A higher limit is needed to fund the infrastructure priorities of Senate leaders and Gov. John Bel Edwards.
Normally, moving a resolution to a House committee is a simple procedural move. But that action took on new weight with the glut of extra cash at stake, prompting House conservatives to vote Wednesday to block Senate Resolution 3 — Senate President Page Cortez's measure to lift the cap — from moving to the House Appropriations Committee.
Fiscal conservatives opposed to lifting the spending cap and lawmakers who want assurance that funding will go to their districts banded together for that vote, successfully delaying the bill from being heard by the appropriations panel, according to interviews with lawmakers on both sides of the political spectrum.
Signs of the negotiations were visible in both chambers Thursday as House Republicans and Democrats filed off the floor separately to discuss the situation. Later on Thursday, the Senate took the unusual step of voting to revive a bill that would ban gender-affirming healthcare for transgender youth. Cortez said in an interview that negotiations on the two issues did not overlap.
Eventually, lawmakers agreed Thursday to let the appropriations panel discuss the spending cap resolution on Friday, provided the committee not vote on the measure until later. The Senate Finance Committee is also poised to vote on its version of the budget on Friday and send the package to the full Senate.
With the clock ticking on the session, it's "time to accelerate the budget process," House Speaker Clay Schexnayder said.
"It’s just that simple," he said. "Waiting until Monday only limits House input on behalf of the people of the state. I say let’s go.”
What to do with the $2.2 billion in extra tax collections hauled in over the past two years has emerged as perhaps the biggest political debate of the session, though a number of bills dealing with LGBTQ+ rights have also inflamed tensions.
House Republicans who want to keep spending lean have pushed for budget policies aimed at staying beneath the constitutionally imposed limit on annual spending growth, saying the Legislature should instead use a bulk of the extra cash to pay down state debt. That outlook has set them at odds with the Senate and Edwards, who favor spending portions of the one-time cash on infrastructure.
The spending rules limited lawmakers to allocating only about $460 million more in the current year and $500 million in the following budget cycle.
Cortez said in an interview that a version of the budget set to be unveiled in the Senate Finance Committee on Friday would reinstate spending on higher education and incorporate a teacher pay raise proposal from K-12 education leaders.
In May, the House approved a budget package that floated spending a bulk of the extra tax inflow to pay down pension debt. That plan would free up local dollars for school systems to give pay raises to teachers, supporters said — another priority of Edwards' administration, which favors paying for the raises out of the state's coffers.
Once Senate Resolution 3 exits the appropriations committee, it will still need to earn a two-thirds vote from the full House for the Legislature to spend beyond the constitutionally mandated limit. The resolution would lift the expenditure limit by $550 million this year and $1.8 billion next year, opening up space for spending on the roads, bridges and coastal restoration projects favored by Edwards and Cortez.
All 39 members of the upper chamber voted in favor of raising the cap on Monday — 34 of whom signed onto the bill as co-authors, signaling an added level of support.
As part of the budget negotiations, the House unanimously passed a measure that would send more money to pay off retirement debt when the state runs a budget surplus.
Cortez has been championing House Bill 47 by Rep. Richard Nelson, R-Mandeville. Nelson’s measure would ask voters in October to amend the constitution to direct 25% of surplus money, up from the current 10%, to paying down the $16 billion in retirement debt.
That the bill passed without dissent Thursday demonstrated its importance to the overall budget talks because twice in May it fell short of the necessary 70 votes as Democrats opposed it. It now goes to the Senate for consideration.
Nelson’s constitutional amendment would allow lawmakers to say they are taking steps to reduce retirement debt even if they use less money to do so than fiscal conservatives have sought with this year’s surplus.
Staff writer Tyler Bridges contributed to this report.