If they can't get enough votes to tap into the "rainy day" fund, lawmakers may ignore this year's $211 million deficit and delay making cuts as much as six months, the head of the House budget-writing committee said Monday.
House Appropriations Committee Chairman Jim Fannin said the Legislature could wait until the books are formally closed on the fiscal year that ends June 30 — a procedural move that won't happen until December — and then make midyear budget cuts in the 2012-13 fiscal year.
If lawmakers stall coping with the deficit until next year, it would be a rare decision to postpone such a large financial problem that is already recognized by the state's income forecasting panel.
"The number does not go away. It's a real number that we have to address at some point," said Fannin, D-Jonesboro, after describing the possibilities of dealing with the gap to the Appropriations Committee.
Gov. Bobby Jindal's top budget adviser, Commissioner of Administration Paul Rainwater, initially wouldn't say if the Jindal administration would support such a move to sidestep the state's balanced budget requirements with a procedural maneuver. But a Division of Administration spokesman later said Rainwater opposes any rollover of the deficit to next year.
Rainwater said agencies are still tallying budget cuts they could make in the two months before the fiscal year ends.
"We're working with (the Department of) Health and Hospitals and higher education and other agencies to see what those cuts would look like," he said.
Fannin said the cuts would be too deep to be possible before the fiscal year ends. He said there's only a little more than $100 million in state general fund still available to slash in the current $25 billion budget for 2011-12.
Lawmakers could tap into the state's $647 million Budget Stabilization Fund, commonly called the rainy day fund, for up to one-third of the fund, about $215 million.
But use of the money would require a two-thirds vote of both the House and the Senate, and it's unclear if the House could reach such a vote because of complaints from conservative lawmakers that the state needs to cut more deeply to reach a sustainable level of spending.
Jindal's office has signaled the governor would consider using rainy day money. Fannin said the fund is an option.
"I can't tell you what the feeling of the body is," the committee chairman said.
Rainwater didn't say which of the option the governor's office would prefer: immediate cuts or rainy day fund use. He said the Jindal administration has been meeting and talking with legislative leaders about the possibilities.
"We're still in conversations. We're not there yet. We're doing our analysis," he said.
Page 2 of 2 - Senate Finance Committee Chairman Jack Donahue, R-Mandeville, said he hasn't talked to Fannin or other lawmakers about ignoring the deficit until next year. Donahue said he would need more details before he determines his position on the idea.
While this year's deficit stands unresolved, more legislative attention centers on next year's $25 billion budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1. The full House debates that proposal Thursday.
Rainwater said the Jindal administration is focused on next year's budget and getting it through the House, where conservative Republicans have complained the proposal contains too much one-time money to pay for ongoing programs and services.
Even with more than $340 million in one-time cash, public colleges and health care services still would be cut, and some lawmakers said the slashing needs to be deeper, a position opposed by the governor.
Meanwhile, over the objections of the Jindal administration, the Appropriations Committee on Monday backed several ideas pushed by Treasurer John Kennedy to shrink government spending in upcoming years.
One proposal would mandate that executive branch agencies cut at least 5,000 jobs each year for the next three budget years and would require a $500 million annual savings from the move by the 2015-16 budget year. The second measure would require the state to spend 10 percent less on consulting and professional services contracts next year.
Supporters said the proposals would generate savings and could help protect services for taxpayers. Rainwater said the administration has worked to cut contract costs and to reduce the number of workers. He said Kennedy's proposals were arbitrary and would be unworkable.
The Kennedy bills, sponsored by Rep. Jerome "Dee" Richard, I-Thibodaux, head next to the full House for debate. Similar proposals were killed by the state Senate last year.