Major budget battle looms for Louisiana

Published 8:04 am Monday, May 15, 2023

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

By Jim Beam

American Press

The Louisiana Legislature appears to be headed for a major budget battle when lawmakers reconvene. The House-passed state budget uses surplus funds to retire state debt, but Gov. John Bel Edwards and Senate leaders have other ideas.

The governor and Senate leaders want to use surplus funds on a teacher pay raise, on education at all levels and long-neglected state facilities, roads, and bridges. If the two chambers don’t come to terms, a special legislative session might be necessary.

The Illuminator reported that the Republican-controlled House and Senate generally try to stick together, but they now disagree on how to spend the $1.9 billion in additional revenue. The state spending limit would have to be increased to spend all of that money, but it takes a tough two-thirds vote to do it.

Without that vote, lawmakers can only use about $460 million in the current budget cycle and only spend $500 million in the following budget cycle. Conservatives like to pay off retirement debt because it doesn’t count toward the spending limit.

Republican leaders in the House say paying off $950 million in public employee and teacher retirement debt could result in more than $200 million in savings for the state. They add that local school districts would then have revenues to increase teacher pay at the local level.

Senate President Page Cortez, R-Lafayette, in an interview said, “I don’t believe suggesting the locals will be able to give out a pay raise equally is reality.”

Wealthier districts might be able to do it, the governor and senators said, but others couldn’t. And charter schools don’t participate in the retirement system and won’t see extra funds.

Sen. Mack “Bodi” White, R-Central, and chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee that will handle the House-passed budget, said, “I think teachers will get a raise.”

Edwards said, “We’re going to be working with the Senate to try to restore this very critical funding. He told The Advocate, “The idea that we wouldn’t pass a budget this year and would have to have a special session, under these circumstances, would be beyond a self-inflicted wound.”

Jay Dardenne, state commissioner of administration and the governor’s budget chief, said paying off debt is like paying down a mortgage on a house before repairing holes in the roof.

“The concept doesn’t necessarily work in a state where roofs are leaking, buildings are not getting repaired, roads are not safe, and teachers are not adequately paid,” Dardenne told The Advocate/The Times Picayune editorial board.

Dardenne said many understaffed school districts couldn’t afford to wait up to three years to realize the savings for local teacher pay increases that might come from paying off retirement debt.

Rep. Jack McFarland, R-Winnfield, and chairman of the House Conservative Caucus, said the governor overlooked the House-approved plan’s likely benefit to the state’s future finances. He said a 0.45 percent state sales tax increase going off the books in 2025 will create a loss of $418 million annually from the state budget.

Edwards and Cortez have said the projects on which they want to spend one-time money wouldn’t incur recurring costs. The state Office of Juvenile Justice has come under fire in recent years and $23 million aimed at solving problems there is no longer in the budget.

The $2,000 teacher pay raise Edwards has proposed is considered important by him and Senate leaders. A recent report said almost 7,000 teachers left the profession last year, which is 14% of the workforce.

The Illuminator said the House included $44.8 million worth of legislator pet projects in its spending plan and the Senate is expected to add even millions more.

Sen. Gerald Boudreaux, D-Lafayette, and chairman of the Senate Democratic Caucus, said, “I think the majority of senators are committed to taking care of teachers directly. We already have a teacher shortage.”

Boudreaux said if lawmakers are going to include what he called “pork” (those pet projects) in the budget, it should also find the money for teacher raises.