In a surprise move, the Louisiana Senate Education Committee on Thursday shelved a plan to boost state aid to public schools by nearly $85 million.
After the hearing, officials said the legislation appears, at least in part, to be a casualty of House-Senate bickering over how to solve Louisiana’s $1.6 billion shortfall to keep funding of state services at current levels.
The measure, House Concurrent Resolution 18, would boost per-pupil spending by $36 million, which was not included in Gov. Bobby Jindal’s proposed operating budget.
The plan earlier breezed through the House, which is far apart from the Senate on how to solve the budget standoff.
The measure was backed by teachers unions, superintendents and the Louisiana School Boards Association. The spending was requested by the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.
However, some senators questioned why public schools would get a funding hike in a year when the Legislature is struggling with major budget issues.
In an interview after the meeting, Sen. J.P. Morrell, D-New Orleans and a member of the committee, said the House-passed budget is more than $200 million below the amount needed to solve state government financial problems.
“We are trying to find the money to pay for a variety of things,” Morrell said. “Right now, the money is not there.”
“You can’t spend what you don’t have,” said Sen. Conrad Appel, R-Metairie and the committee chairman, adding that the state doesn’t have the money available. “If we find it, we’ll put it in.”
The money is sent through a complex funding formula called the Minimum Foundation Program.
Under state law, lawmakers can only accept or reject the $3.7 billion spending plan but cannot change it.
If no resolution wins final approval, state aid for public schools would generally remain at current levels.
Another option is that, if the Legislature strikes an accord on the budget battle, the $36 million hike and other education dollars included in the resolution could be handled through separate legislation, which was done in 2013.
The session ends on June 11.
The resolution includes $36 million in new aid for the state’s 720,000 public school students; about $40 million to cover the costs of newly enrolled students; and about $8 million to boost state aid for students with disabilities and students taking part in dual enrollment.
The request also is supposed to ensure that teacher pay raises of about $600 per year that the Legislature approved in 2013 remain intact.
After the meeting, Erin Bendily, assistant superintendent for the state Department of Education, noted that BESE was mindful of state budget problems when it made the request in March.
Bendily said Senate committee members failed to approve the legislation “because they understand there are a lot of needs across the state,” even as they try to find dollars for public schools.
“We appreciate the fact that they have made education a priority in the past several years when the budget has been very difficult,” she said. “We understand that that’s no different this year.”
Others bristled at comments that public schools have not had to grapple with funding cuts in recent years like other state services.
Steve Monaghan, president of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, said public schools have faced employee furloughs, premature teacher retirements and recurring problems caused by scarce state resources.
“Those are the painful realities for people who do the work in the buildings,” said Monaghan, whose group backed the legislation.
Sen. Mike Walsworth, R-West Monroe, made the motion to shelve the measure.
It won approval without objection and without debate.
Follow Will Sentell on Twitter, @WillSentell. For more coverage of Louisiana government and politics, follow our Politics blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog.