In the final minutes of the legislative session that ended Thursday, Louisiana lawmakers approved a $30 billion state budget deal that funded teacher pay raises and delivered new money for early childhood education, colleges, and people with disabilities. 

Lawmakers from the House and Senate spent all day Thursday negotiating over relatively small pots of money before reaching a deal on the state spending plan. The state House and Senate each approved the bill about 15 minutes before the Legislature adjourned at 6 p.m.

The budget funds a $1,000 raise for public school teachers and a $500 raise for school support staff, along with a $39 million block grant for school districts that represents the schools plan sought by Gov. John Bel Edwards and the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Shortly after the Legislature adjourned, the governor did a victory lap on the budget and several other legislative priorities. He painted the new funding for teachers and education as the fruits of repeated special sessions aimed at shoring up a state budget that was in crisis when he took office.

“Finally we were able to pass a budget that focuses on the things that we want to focus on,” Edwards told reporters in a press conference Thursday evening.

Edwards, the only Democratic governor in the Deep South, is running for re-election this year. He faced swift backlash in recent weeks from progressive groups for signing a six-week abortion ban without exceptions for rape and incest, which was the most high-profile bill passed during the legislative session. Public school groups backed the governor’s push for teacher pay raises, which won wide support in a Legislature where most members are running for re-election this year.

The governor also won approval for several pieces of his legislative agenda, most importantly the teacher pay raises but also several smaller-ticket items. But he was defeated again by the Republican Legislature on raising the minimum wage and passing equal pay legislation.

Edwards has repeatedly touted the state’s budget surplus, and while some Republicans chastised it as proof the state is overtaxing its people, lawmakers spent every dollar available in the budget.

With lawmakers facing the rare surplus instead of a shortfall, they sent new money to a range of services including colleges, councils on aging, motor vehicle offices and programs for the developmentally disabled. The funding represented several priorities sought by the House, Senate and governor.

Early childhood education is in line for $15 million in new money this year, after a push by state senators survived the budget negotiations. With the potential for additional casino revenues from Harrah’s, early childhood education programs could push $20 million in new money. Another $4.8 million in the Department of Education budget was also redirected to services for four-year-olds, which some lawmakers have counted toward the new money to early childhood education.

Higher education will receive nearly $50 million more in state money, which included full funding for the popular college scholarship, Taylor Opportunity Program for Students, or TOPS.

The Department of Children and Family Services received about $15 million more state dollars, including funding for an expansion of foster care services to cover youth up to age 21, an effort to ensure “kids do not slip through the cracks,” Edwards said.

The budget bill represents a 1% increase in state spending, and House Republicans successfully cut out about $700 million in “excess budget authority,” or money that they don’t expect to come into agencies mostly from the federal government.

“We worked through all our our differences,” said House Appropriations Chairman Cameron Henry, R-Metairie. “We ended up passing a budget that’s about 1% more state general fund than last year so we’re trying to control the growth in spending.”

Henry touted the fact that lawmakers were able to fund several priorities by helping agencies find money in their budgets. He said lawmakers spent much of Thursday negotiating over things like funding for agricultural centers and health services.

Rep. Randal Gaines, chair of the Louisiana Legislative Black Caucus, said during negotiations over the budget the group’s members sought more money for the state’s historically black colleges, including Southern University and Grambling State University. The budget ultimately delivered an extra $2 million to Southern that Gaines said is aimed at helping the school’s accreditation.

An unlikely point of contention in budget negotiations was the Essence Festival, an annual music festival held at the Superdome in New Orleans. It previously had received about $1 million in state support and ultimately received all of that money after lawmakers decided the state had to honor its contract with the festival.

Lawmakers resolved the most significant budget dispute early in the session – settling how much money the state would have to spend. After months of blocking state revenue forecasts that would have given the Legislature and governor more money for the budget cycle that starts July 1, House Speaker Taylor Barras relented in early April, agreeing to recognize more dollars.

The move gave the Legislature a new $119 million to spend in the budget, and legislators quickly went to work deciding where to put it.

The influx of dollars put lawmakers in a rare position of having a surplus to spend, as opposed to a shortfall. For years, the Legislature has lurched from one budget crisis to another, making painful budget cuts along the way to higher education, health care and other services.

The budget this year adds additional dollars back to some of those areas.

Despite virtually everyone agreeing the state should give teachers a pay raise, the House GOP leadership and Gov. Edwards still found themselves on opposing sides as the budget debate shaped up early in the session.

Edwards, backed by the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education and the state Senate, sought a plan that included raises of $1,000 for teachers and $500 for support staff, plus a $39 million block grant to schools. House Republicans sought higher raises – $1,200 and $600 – but without a block grant.

Ultimately, though, the House GOP backed down and supported the original plan after BESE and school groups reaffirmed their commitment to it.

While the rest of the budget negotiations were over much smaller pots of money than the $140 million teacher pay and school funding increase, the House and Senate still had disagreements. Henry and other House members expressed concern with how the Senate planned to pay for its budget plan, partly by swapping means of financing. House leaders warned it would require next year’s Legislature could have to come up with north of $40 million in “replacement revenue” if the Senate’s version of the budget passed.

Lawmakers ultimately agreed to strip out funding for an expansion of Medicaid to cover children with disabilities even though their parents don’t normally qualify. The TEFRA program no longer needs funding in the budget because it won’t go into effect until next June.


Follow Sam Karlin on Twitter, @samkarlin.