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Poker with real dollars being played over session limits

Hardball politics went on display at the meeting of Louisiana’s Revenue Estimating Conference, producing results with implications concerning this year’s special session and next year’s elections.

At the meeting, which establishes limits of money to spend by the state, there are two kinds of funds considered. Non-recurring funds are those (in essence) left over from previous years considered a bonus and can be spent on public works projects or debt reduction of various kinds. Recurring funds are predicted to come in future years and may be spent for any purpose. Unless additional funds were recognized in this meeting, the only way the upcoming special session could spend money would be by a two-thirds vote of the Legislature. All four members of the panel must agree on the limits.

Consensus was there on $1.6 billion in recurring revenue, meaning these monies are available for things like tax relief, insurance rebates, and operating expenses of state government. But Sen. Pres. Don Hines refused to go along with the others in allowing $827 million from being recognized as nonrecurring expenses, which could reduce a backlog of authorized transportation spending, paying off state pension debt, or projects across the state.

Hines, of course, vowed revenge for Gov. Kathleen Blanco’s scuttling of a sugar mill in his district and this seemed to be his way of accomplishing that. Blanco was counting on being able to offer up the measures for recurring expenses as a ploy to build popular support for her reelection campaign in the fall. (Telling is her remark that her special session agenda was needed in order to help “families … working harder than ever before and many businesses … struggling to stay afloat;” if that is the case, why has she opposed all but the most trivial tax cuts that she asks for now and instead supported tax increases?)

But the real hook for legislators is the nonrecurring spending. While a statewide political figure might gain electorally more from policies built upon the call items from recurring funding than those of the nonrecurring, legislators get the most political mileage out of public works proposals for their districts. In other words, unless two-thirds majorities can be mustered guaranteed to open up the nonrecurring pot of money, legislators won’t have much incentive to want to come to a special session, figuring there is no rush in waiting on these other items until the regular session in the spring whereas many of them want to be able to promise projects to their districts as quickly as possible.

So now the question is, will legislators want to show up and do the governor’s bidding on items mainly for her political benefit, without a chance to do stuff mainly for their political benefits? (Also part of the dynamic: will term-limited legislators, nearly half of the total, respond here more to a statewide agenda rather than their district’s?) Key to this may be the GOP delegations, which control more than one-third of each chambers’ votes and thus voting in a bloc can stop any attempt to declare available nonrecurring funds. These members have expressed the most skepticism over the session, and presenting a decision not to override could cause a quick adjournment, or even get Blanco to yank the entire session.

Thus, both the viability of the session and its impact on political futures still remain in flux.

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