Jay Dardenne

Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne outlines Gov. John Bel Edwards' budget proposal before a meeting of the Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget on Friday, Feb. 7, 2020. 

Despite a dispute with Republican leaders over how much money the state will have to spend, Gov. John Bel Edwards’ administration on Friday unveiled a budget proposal that would send tens of millions of dollars toward early childhood education, colleges and K-12 schools.

However, one key area — teacher pay raises Edwards campaigned on last fall in his reelection bid — were not included in the roughly $32 billion budget proposal, angering some teachers groups who have long supported the governor.

The budget plan offers the first detailed glimpse at where Edwards wants to spend $285 million extra dollars — $103 million of which will only become available if Republican leaders in the state House and Senate agree later this spring to recognize its use for the spending plan.

Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne, Edwards’ chief budget adviser, told lawmakers Friday in a Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget hearing that the proposal was a “starting point.”

“I know that before the bill leaves committee they're not going to want to pass a bill that cuts $103 million,” Dardenne said after the hearing. “They would have to go in and make cuts. They didn't want to do that last year, I have a hard time seeing them want to do it this year.”

The proposed budget represents the second consecutive year the governor outlined his spending plan to lawmakers without an agreement over how much money is available to spend. Last year, then-House Speaker Taylor Barras, R-New Iberia, blocked the revenue forecast before agreeing to adopt one during the legislative session. That’s what Gov. Edwards’ administration is banking on this year.

The governor’s $32.2 billion spending plan represents a $285 million increase compared to the current year’s budget, which ends June 30. The proposal includes a $25 million boost to early childhood education, which Edwards has said is his No. 1 priority for education investments in his second term, which began last month.

It also sends $35 million more to higher education, another relatively modest step toward reinvesting in colleges and universities after Louisiana cut its support to higher education dramatically over the past decade.

If adopted by lawmakers, the plan would give K-12 schools a $39 million increase in the Minimum Foundation Program, the state allocation to public schools. That is on top of a $26.6 million increase required by law.

But while Edwards campaigned on a promise to continue to raise public school teachers’ pay to bring it to the levels seen in other Southern states, the proposal did not include a pay hike. Instead, it would be up to local school districts to dole out raises if they chose — though Dardenne acknowledged they would be “modest.” Last year, Edwards and the Legislature gave teachers a $1,000 pay raise, which cost the state about $100 million. 

“The need to plus-up higher education, the MFP, and early childhood basically soaked up most of the money that we were using as incentives,” Dardenne said. “It was $100 million to do a $1,000 teacher pay raise last time. We just don't have that kind of money in the budget.”

Teachers groups that have traditionally supported the governor chafed at the lack of a teacher pay raise on Friday. Cynthia Posey, legislative and political director for the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, said she was “floored.”

Shane Riddle, legislative and political director for the Louisiana Association of Educators, suggested that if the revenue forecast is adopted before a budget is passed, more money would be available, enabling a teacher pay hike.

"We have time to work through this," Riddle said. "Once the additional revenue is recognized I think the budget proposal may look different."

Still, House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, R-Gonzalez, and Senate President Page Cortez, R-Lafayette, have sought to adopt revenue forecasts that would give the state less money to spend, not more. At a meeting of the Revenue Estimating Conference last week, Schexnayder proposed a forecast that would be flat for the upcoming budget cycle. Dardenne refused that proposal, and the two sides did not reach an agreement, as the REC vote must be unanimous to pass.

“It was something I thought we could have a starting point on,” Schexnayder said Friday. “I really feel like that would have been a better way to start this process.”

Tensions between Edwards’ administration and Republican lawmakers were evident Friday, with some lawmakers complaining they did not have access to a more robust budget presentation that was posted online during the meeting. Cortez said Dardenne was “unilaterally” including the $103 million in the budget proposal even though he and Schexnayder refused to adopt that projection a week earlier.

Among the other funding hikes proposed are $22 million that lawmakers outlined in laws passed last year. That includes a pay hike for judges that will cost $3.65 million, $4.4 million to expand Medicaid to cover certain families and $12.8 million to increase the amount of money the state pays local sheriffs to house state inmates in their jails.

Included in the $103 million that economists project will be available to spend is $25 million in unclaimed property that Treasurer John Schroder has refused to hand over to the state. Edwards sued Schroder over the dispute Friday. 

Email Sam Karlin at skarlin@theadvocate.com