state budget

Louisiana House of Representatives spent Thursday, May 9, 2019 debating the $30 billion spending plan for the fiscal year that begins on July 1.

Around this time last year, a divided Louisiana House was wrestling with a state budget that threatened to shutter hospitals, cut popular scholarships for college students and raised fears of tossing the elderly out of nursing homes.

But on Thursday, faced with a recently-recognized $119 million in additional state revenue instead of a severe shortfall, the House easily passed a spending plan where the biggest source of controversy was how much extra money the state should spend on public schools, and how large of a raise teachers should get.

The $30 billion budget passed 100-1, sending it to a Senate that is almost certain to make its own round of changes. Despite a disagreement between some Republicans and Democrats over how to handle giving teachers raises, members did not try to make large-scale changes to the spending plan outlined by House Appropriations Chairman Cameron Henry.

“This is obviously one of the easiest budget processes we’ve gone through in the four years I’ve been here,” as head of Appropriations, said Henry, R-Metairie.

The plan would give teachers a $1,200 pay raise and support staff a $600 raise. That’s higher than the $1,000 and $500 respective raises outlined by the governor and endorsed by the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. It would fully fund TOPS, deliver an extra $36 million in state money to higher education and boost spending on corrections, among other departments.

However, it does not include a $39 million block grant to public schools that proponents, including the governor and BESE, have deemed crucial.

“We’re willing to compromise with them,” Henry said of the Senate. “But they have to be willing to work with us in the process and not give us two minutes as it relates to the state budget.”

State Rep. Walt Leger III, who goes to bat for the governor in Henry’s Appropriations Committee, did not try to alter the school funding and teacher pay plan, like he did in committee.

Instead, he said the Senate will work out some of the “flaws” in the budget. Those include language that limits how agencies can spend their money and where they can cut, Leger said. He tried making those changes Thursday but was shot down, opposed by Henry and other Republicans.

Leger said bringing the fight over the budget to the House floor would have been “counterproductive.”

“There are a number of really fundamental problems with this,” Leger said after the House wrapped up its work on the budgets. “But I expect that ultimately the universe of those is so much smaller than what it has been in the past few years."

Last year, lawmakers were dealing with a $650 million fiscal cliff as they created their spending plan because of expiring taxes.

But a partial renewal of a sales tax penny shored up the state’s finances this year, and higher than expected tax collections led to $119 million in additional funding being recognized by the Revenue Estimating Conference for next year’s budget. Lawmakers used that money to fund teacher raises, pay for TOPS, and deliver an extra $4 million to the Office of Motor Vehicles in an effort to decrease wait times. Councils on aging would get an additional $4 million, and disability services championed by advocates would get extra money.

The plan gives $10 million of the $13 million requested by the Department of Children and Family Services, but prevents the agency from cutting the food stamp program. The head of DCFS told the House Appropriations committee last month that she has nowhere else to cut besides the food stamp program because of the dire state of her budget.

Lawmakers indicated a willingness to put more money toward early childhood education. Higher education would get an extra $36 million, a move that fully funds the popular tuition program TOPS.

“Higher education is faring better in this proposed budget than they have in a decade,” said Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne, the budget architect for Gov. John Bel Edwards.

The budget also cut out “excess budget authority,” from several agencies to the tune of $700 million, an effort to bring spending estimates in line with what departments expect. Henry said he and other members heard in the news the state was set to have the largest budget in history, but noticed many departments did not spend all the money they were authorized to, often because fees or federal dollars did not come in as expected.

Agencies can come back to lawmakers throughout the year to recoup their lost budget authority if the money comes in, he added.

Lawmakers also unanimously approved budgets for the Legislature and judiciary, as well as a supplemental bill that spends excess money.

The state has a $308 million surplus from last fiscal year, some of which lawmakers decided Thursday to spend on unfunded liability for the state employees and teachers retirement systems.

Lawmakers also had $110 million in excess funding for the current fiscal year that ends June 30, money the House aimed toward paying down debt service, implementing a new online government system and several other areas.

The House advanced standstill legislative and judicial budgets. Combined, the House approved $34 billion in spending for the 2020 fiscal year.

Follow Sam Karlin on Twitter, @samkarlin.