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Strange budgeting may cost disabled, roads, citizenry

It’s a half-year to Christmas, but the Louisiana House of Representatives constructed a Christmas tree bill in an attempt to save the essence of one bill that might end up bringing down another good idea – a rescue needed only because of stupid spending priorities.

SB 98 started out as a bill to fund the New Opportunities Waiver program. This would create a stable funding mechanism these transfer payments to people who have serious disabilities yet are able to live outside of institutions. It would end up saving money for the state because institutionalization of these folks is more expensive and almost always paid by the state because the costs of care entirely strips most families of their assets and essentially makes them wards of the state. Currently, nearly 15,000 individuals remain on a waiting list for an opportunity to get a waiver.

But while the House was in session, over in the Senate the Finance Committee postponed action on HB 722, which would ensure that any funds collected from transportation-related taxes and fees would be spent only on transportation capital items (86 percent priority highway projects). This would free up almost $320 million a year to tackle a roads backlog relatively even greater than the NOW backlog of $14 billion and at the rate of growth of revenues statewide by next year the $370 million cost would be made up.

The panel’s major concern was that since the money now was being used for operational expenses statewide would be short those funds, throwing the budget out of balance at budgeted spending rates. But HB 722 doesn’t go into effect this year; rather, next year. And this totally ignores the fact that HB 765, for example, shoots out $150 million in one-time spending for highways and another $150-plus million can be gained from stopping spending on artists, non-taxpayers, legislators’ pet projects, and refusing to add 1,200 new state jobs despite a shrinking state population, so redirection of this spending can make HB 722 work even if sales taxes grow only minimally for next year.

As a result of this rejection, over at the House dealing with SB 98 suddenly became a chance to build a Christmas tree bill – one where legislators seeing a popular, laudable bill load up very disconnected things stymied elsewhere in the hopes all will pass. State Rep. Jane Smith got thrown parts of her HB 257 which sets up, but the amendment doesn’t fund, a mechanism to pay $500 bonuses to veterans from the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars.

But state Rep. Blade Morrish got tossed in his HB 87, stalled in the Senate, which would divert money to bail out the Louisiana Citizens Property Insurance Corporation to the tune of $100 million which would start this year. And then state Rep. Bodi White got put in the guts of HB 722, ringing the total now up to over $470 million next year. All amendments went on without objection and the recorded vote for it was 99-0.

All of which puts the original intent of SB 98 at risk. If the Senate (almost all of whom co-authored SB 98) rejects the changes and stays firm in conference committee and the House refuses to lop out these amendments, SB 98 goes down the tubes. Again, some juggling of bills and amendments of others could save the HB 722 portion, and the HB 87 part can be sacrificed since the state’s going to have to pay for it anyway whether from a special fund or the general fund. (If the Senate accepts and the budget ends up with a deficit, Gov. Kathleen Blanco would have to pare the excess through her line item veto power.)

Let’s hope budget sanity prevails and room is found for both SB 98 and HB 722 in their intended forms to be signed into law, for the sakes of the disabled, transportation needs, and wise spending of the peoples’ funds.

1 comment:

Steve Harrelson said...

Thanks for the updates. Keep it up.

Steve Harrelson