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Separate LA officer budgets constitutionally valid

While unusual, the move to separate out appropriations for a constitutional office as done earlier this week in Louisiana’s House Appropriations Committee is not, as defenders of Democrat Gov. John Bel Edwards allege, unconstitutional, or even uncouth.

At the request of Republican Atty. Gen. Jeff Landry, the GOP-controlled committee removed references to the Department of Justice in the general appropriations bill HB 1 and instead tucked these into a separate HB 105. Further, the separate bill contained instructions giving Landry the authority to make cuts in any fashion within the department should revenue shortfalls occur during the fiscal year. In response, Democrats on the committee as well as Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne opined that they thought handling appropriations in this fashion did not comply with the Constitution.

But nothing in the Constitution disallows such an approach. Art. III Sec. 16 declares that the Legislature produce a general appropriations bill “itemized and shall contain only appropriations for the ordinary operating expenses of government, public charities, pensions, and the public debt or interest thereon.” It then allows that “All other bills for appropriating money shall be for a specific purpose and amount.” As such, HB 105 appears to meet this standard – as do the several other appropriations bills other than the general one typically passed each year, for the legislative and judicial branches and ancillary expenditures.

The issue may come from the clause in HB 105 that would allow Landry to make spending reductions within his department in times of deficit. This reduces Edwards’ influence and thereby leverage over Landry, whose political philosophies on most issues rest diametrically opposed, in these situations.

Yet again in this instance, the Constitution and bill wording do not collide. Art. VII Sec. 10 outlines the procedure in cases of deficit, amplified in statute by R.S. 39:75. The Constitution says where to make cuts and by how much, but does not specify the process. Statute clarifies that, saying the governor has some unilateral authority to make cuts, but if a deficit still exists after these reach a certain level, those need legislative approval.

Specifically, a governor may “reduce appropriations for the executive branch of government for any program that is appropriated from a fund that is in a deficit posture” as long as “total adjustments for a budget unit shall not exceed three percent in the aggregate of the total appropriation for that budget unit for a fiscal year.” He needs approval when cuts exceed seven-tenths of the total shortfall, regardless of where made, where he may “reduce any appropriation or allocation for the executive branch of state government from the state general fund and dedicated funds, including any which are constitutionally protected or mandated, by an amount not to exceed five percent in the aggregate of the total amount appropriated or allocated from that fund for that fiscal year.”

HB 105 acknowledges this authority, and in practical terms that would mean that if a deficit existed and was sufficiently low, with impunity Edwards could cut up to three percent of appropriations to Justice from the general fund, interagency transfers (combined these provide almost half the projected departmental funding), or any of the 11 statutory dedications, if any of these were in deficit. Only the self-generated funding, about a tenth of the allocation, would appear immune. If the overall government deficit were higher, then he could slash up to five percent from the dedicated funds, but any amount from the general fund going to Justice as long as the aggregate across state government, including the justice portion, does not exceed five percent.

Only that Edwards could not direct cuts in certain directions within Justice changes by this approach. He still could dictate the total amount of the cut (with Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget approval past a certain aggregate point), just not determining to which programs. This does hamper his ability to bludgeon policy outcomes out of the Legislature; for example, his recent reaction to Appropriations not reducing the Taylor Opportunity Program for Scholars and making fewer expenditures for health care that emphasized continued funding of all charity hospitals, by saying he would cut programs for the most vulnerable citizens as a form of emotional terrorism designed to elicit higher taxation to keeping spending on TOPS and health care at existing levels. Still, he could choose to hammer some departments more than others from the general fund, including Justice, regardless of HB 105 (with legislative assent).

A policy debate can and should occur over the wisdom of parceling out constitutional officers’ budgets and the increased autonomy that could give them to react to deficits. However, the Constitution does not automatically prevent such policy, leaving it as a political question that the branches must hash out.

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