Following an hours-long flurry of back-room deliberations, Louisiana’s Legislature on Thursday approved a multi-billion spending plan for next year, adopting a series of budget bills that provide pay raises for public school teachers, invests millions more in higher education, and carves up a massive windfall in federal coronavirus aid.
With the state's coffers awash in cash, this year's budget debates were unusually tranquil — and quick. The Senate advanced the $37 billion spending plan weeks ahead of its June 10 adjournment, a far cry from previous sessions when lawmakers would sprint from chamber to chamber to pass the budget with minutes to spare. The House concurred with the spending plan Thursday night with little debate.
The operating budget which now heads to Gov. John Bel Edwards includes pay raises for K-12 public school teachers and support staff, college faculty, prison guards, juvenile justice workers and other rank-and-file state employees. It fully funds the popular Taylor Opportunity Program for Students – which covers tuition at higher education institutions for students meeting modest academic standards – and ups funding to the need-based Go Grant aid program. Foster parents would also get a rate increase.
Public school teachers would get an $800 pay raise, while support staff like bus drivers and cafeteria workers would see their salaries bumped by $400. That's twice what Edwards, a Democrat, proposed in his initial budget — but falls short of the $1,000 raises for teachers and $500 raises for support staff that legislative leaders promised, much to the ire of teachers groups.
Lawmakers are looking to make permanent the temporary .45-cent increase added to the state sales taxes in 2018 to balance the budget.
“We didn’t get there this year but we got further than the governor thought we could,” said Sen. Bodi White, a Central Republican and the chair of the Senate Finance Committee, adding that there should be additional dollars available next year to give teachers another bonus.
Edwards pitched his initial budget proposal as a historic investment in higher education and his recommendation to increase funding for college and universities by $80 million made it through the legislative process largely unscathed. New dollars would be set aside for a tuition aid program for community college students. And higher education programs would get millions of dollars in other specific line-item spending bumps.
Louisiana State University would be required to spend $4 million of its increase for campus lighting and security improvements amid a sexual misconduct scandal and complaints about the school’s handling of safety issues.
Louisiana's entry-level prison guards also scored a 10% pay raise in the budget after department heads pleaded with lawmakers for new incentives to stem a sky-high turnover rate among staff.
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Instead of taking out massive loans, lawmakers steered $400 million in better-than-expected tax revenues toward making the state’s first payment to the federal government for upgrades made to the New Orleans region’s flood protection system after Hurricane Katrina.
“We were very fortunate to pay for it this year without borrowing dollars,” said White, who had initially put forward a measure that would pay for the levee debt by increasing the sales tax in Jefferson, Orleans, Plaquemines, St. Bernard and St. Charles parishes.
Lawmakers on Thursday also divvied up $1.6 billion in federal coronavirus relief from the American Rescue Plan — a bit more than half of $3 billion the state will receive through the package. More than a third of those funds, $563 million, would go toward infrastructure projects, including widening Interstates 10, 12 and 20, and work on I-49 South. A $300 million portion would go towards upgrading the state’s decrepit sewer and water systems, with a 10-member legislative commission reviewing the projects.
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Another $490 million would be steered towards the state’s bankrupt unemployment trust fund, with $190 million used to repay the federal government for loans the state began taking out in October when the fund bottomed out amid soaring unemployment.
To juice the state’s tourism industry, lawmakers directed $77.5 million toward marketing Louisiana to travelers and propping up convention bureaus. Ports around the state would get $50 million, the logging industry would get $10 million, movie theatres would get $4.5 million and nonprofits would get $10 million. Lawmakers also set aside $15 million for technology upgrades at the State Capitol.
Storm-ravaged southwest Louisiana would receive $30 million, with $14 million for the Port of Lake Charles, $4 million for McNeese State University and other dollars going toward rebuilding the regional airport and school districts in the area.
The House sent the bill that maps out spending on the American Rescue Plan dollars back to the Senate for a conference committee, rejecting an amendment added by Sen. Cleo Fields, a Baton Rouge Democrat, which would direct any unexpended dollars in the package towards drainage and erosion improvements at Southern University.
Combined with other budget measures, the state would spend more than $43 billion on programs and services in the 2021-22 financial year. Spending on legislative and judicial operations would grow larger, and judges would get another year of a multiyear pay raise.