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Fiscal Pickle 

Jeremy Alford on the opening of budget hearings in Baton Rouge — and why Gov. Bobby Jindal will have his hands full

We won't bow down / on that dirty ground — "My Indian Red"

Maybe those words were dancing through lawmakers' minds May 25 as they posed for pictures with a pair of the prettiest Mardi Gras Indians the Creole Wild West Tribe could offer on short notice. Whether it was inspiration or coincidence, the Indians visited the House of Representatives on the same day House members took up Gov. Bobby Jindal's $25 billion budget bill — and refused to bow down.

  Louisiana governors typically have no trouble ramming their budgets through the legislative process. Not this year. Not this governor.

  This year, Jindal doesn't have earmarks to offer — or take away — and therefore his edge has been dulled. The state's fiscal crunch is so severe that, for the first time in recent memory, the state budget is devoid of pork for lawmakers' favorite projects and programs. That has unleashed a tide of legislative resentment, some of it built up over several years. More than one lawmaker has dredged up Jindal's broken promise of a legislative pay raise in 2008.

  That's just one of the governor's broken promises.

  He also has broke a campaign pledge not to use one-time monies on recurring expenditures — and that, too, has come back to bite him. By a 22-vote margin on May 23, the House adopted a resolution by Rep. Brent Geymann, R-Lake Charles, requiring a two-thirds vote of the lower chamber to pass any budget that includes nonrecurring dollars.

  Why is that a big deal? Because Jindal proposes to cover roughly $500 million of next year's $1.6 billion budget shortfall with one-time monies.

  Last week, Geymann's resolution caused the House to shelve Jindal's budget, at least temporarily, after representatives voted 88-11 not to plug one-time monies into next year's budget. It was a clear sign that Jindal, whose team worked lawmakers feverishly during the floor debate, had lost more control than anyone had anticipated.

  One of the ringleaders of this latest independence movement is Appropriations Chairman Jim Fannin, D-Jonesboro, whose budget-drafting committee recently made deeper budget cuts than Jindal had proposed. In response, the administration called the committee's action "irresponsible" and warned that five prisons would be shuttered, state troopers would lose their jobs and flu shots might be eliminated for senior citizens. Fannin's committee also plugged a few budget holes by raiding an economic development fund — also against Jindal's wishes.

  As the drama unfolded on the House floor last week, Fannin's fatigue showed. He was being tugged one way by the administration and another by colleagues who were unwilling to compromise. "I'm stuck in the middle," Fannin said.

  In Fannin's corner is House Speaker Jim Tucker, R-Algiers, whose own relationship with Jindal has been strained recently. When the Joint Budget Committee decided to refuse a Jindal-backed request by colleges to hike tuition, eliminating a $37 million pot of money from Jindal's budget, Tucker defended the move by challenging universities to prove that increases granted over the last three years were paying off.

  Tucker appears ready to take his anti-administration rhetoric to a new level by supporting legislation to substantially trim state contracts. "The speaker told me it's a go," says Rep. Jerome Dee Richard, No Party-Thibodaux, author of the bill. Richard added that Tucker also may put his weight behind a related bill that would cut positions in the executive branch.

  Tucker said through a spokeswoman that he met with Richard earlier this month regarding the proposals and had offered supportive words, but the speaker did not respond to Gambit's interview request. Tucker's office also confirmed that Treasurer John Kennedy, who has advocated for the initiatives in speeches around the state, took part in the meeting. For his part, Jindal has not warmed up to the Streamlining idea.

  While these developments show how far Jindal and the House have drifted apart, they also serve as a preview of the uneasy truces the administration and lawmakers will have to forge to produce a balanced budget by the session's last day, June 23.

  So far, like the Creole Wild West tribe, lawmakers show no signs of bowing down.

Jeremy Alford can be reached at jeremy@jeremyalford.com.

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