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Louisiana’s new legislative leaders inherit $86M surplus

February 12, 2020 GMT
Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne, the governor's chief budget adviser, left; House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, R-Gonzales, center; and Senate President Page Cortez, R-Lafayette, speak ahead of a meeting of Louisiana's income forecasting panel on Friday, Feb. 7, 2020, in Baton Rouge, La. (AP Photo/Melinda Deslatte)
Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne, the governor's chief budget adviser, left; House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, R-Gonzales, center; and Senate President Page Cortez, R-Lafayette, speak ahead of a meeting of Louisiana's income forecasting panel on Friday, Feb. 7, 2020, in Baton Rouge, La. (AP Photo/Melinda Deslatte)

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Louisiana lawmakers are sitting on $86 million in off-the-books surpluses in their agencies, and the House and Senate’s new leaders said they haven’t decided how they want to spend the money that has been quietly amassing for years.

The dollars aren’t regularly discussed in budget hearings, and they’re not included in the yearly legislative spending plans. Their existence is tucked away in annual financial reports for the House, Senate and other legislative agencies that were recently filed by the legislative auditor’s office. The surpluses’ size approaches the $96 million allocated this year for legislative operations.

House Speaker Clay Schexnayder and Senate President Page Cortez, both Republicans, said they haven’t looked at the accountant’s figures or started discussions of how they might want to spend the money since they took office a month ago.

“You’re telling me something that I don’t even know,” Cortez said Tuesday. ”No, I don’t have any idea what we’re going to do with it.”

Schexnayder said he’ll “start looking at all of that” over the next few weeks, now that he’s completed committee assignments and can dig into details of other topics.

Both legislative leaders said they would consider steering some of the cash to needed repairs on the exterior of the Louisiana Capitol, where a temporary walkway protects the public entering the front doors from crumbling mortar that has been eroded by water damage. Repair work on the 1930s-era historic landmark is estimated to cost up to $60 million.

“One thing we don’t want to happen is to have a building like that deteriorate because we didn’t take care of it,” said Schexnayder, of Ascension Parish.

Cortez agreed, saying repairs to the building that houses the legislative branch, the governor’s office and the offices of many other statewide elected officials need to be prioritized.

“I think that we really need to put some money towards the care of the building,” said Cortez, of Lafayette. “It’s not only a capitol we use, we have no intention of going anywhere else.”

He didn’t directly commit to spending the legislative surpluses on the work.

While state general fund surpluses from tax collections get heavy scrutiny, the House and Senate have socked away dollars for years with little public discussion. It’s hard to determine how much money legislative agencies have at any given time because they don’t keep their funds in accounts with the state treasury like most other state agencies. But the surplus dollars are buried in the Legislature’s annual financial reports, growing slightly over the last year.

The House was sitting on a $33 million fund balance when the last budget year ended June 30, according to its most recent audit released Monday, while the Senate had $12 million in the bank. The latest financial report for the Legislative Budgetary Control Council, which covers expenses shared by the House and Senate, showed that agency with about $41 million in its accounts.

Republican former Senate President John Alario had said the Legislature accrued the fund balances in case the House and Senate ever were at odds with a governor who decided to block financing and stymie a separate branch of government’s work. But some lawmakers have said they didn’t realize their agencies were sitting on such large cash accounts.

Alario also had talked of using as much as $40 million of the surpluses to construct a new legislative auditor’s office building across the street from the Capitol, where remains of a demolished office structure are used for parking. Cortez and Schexnayder said they’d consider exploring such an idea, though Cortez seemed lukewarm on the concept, questioning its cost and use. Schexnayder said Capitol repairs should take a higher priority.

“We should first take care of what we have,” the House speaker said.

Louisiana’s Supreme Court also retains a multimillion-dollar, off-the-books surplus.

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Follow Melinda Deslatte on Twitter at http://twitter.com/melindadeslatte