Louisiana Budget

Senate President John Alario, R-Westwego, chairman of the Revenue Estimating Conference, center, speaks with House Speaker Taylor Barras, R-New Iberia, right, on Thursday, Jan. 17, 2019. The conference, Louisiana's income forecasting panel, discussed whether to boost the official estimates.

Louisiana Senate President John Alario likened the standoff over how much money state government has available to spend to the deadlock over the border wall that has shut down the federal government.

The fight in Washington, now entering its fifth week, is about preventing the Republican president from securing a win by approving taxpayer funds for the security wall — Democratic claims to the contrary.

In Baton Rouge, the stand-off, now entering its third month, is about keeping a Democratic governor from having enough money to increase pay for school teachers, some of his most ardent supporters, by setting up the scenario where he would have to raise taxes in an election year to cover the costs of that promise — Republican claims to the contrary.

Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards wants the Legislature to approve teacher pay raises of at least $1,000. The governor also wants to boost salaries for cafeteria workers, school bus drivers and others by $500 annually. The price tag would be about $114 million per year.

House Speaker Taylor Barras, a Republican, says he supports raising the pay for K-12 public school teachers. “But setting up the expectation that we could pay for it is a little bit premature,” he said Thursday to explain why he continues to refuse to recognize that Louisiana has more money available than previously thought — revenues Edwards wanted to use for, among other things, giving teachers their first raise in a decade.

The New Iberia banker says the state’s economic situation is far too fluid now for taxpayers to take on more spending promises. Administration and legislative economists say better-than-expected tax collections could add more than $125 million than previously expected for this fiscal year and at least $67 million for next budget year.

All four REC members must agree to “recognize” the additional revenues before the state can spend it. Alario, LSU economist Jim Richardson and Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne do, and for a third time in as many months, Barras does not.

Basically, without the adjustment, Edwards will have to cut spending and/or rearrange money for other services in order to fund the pay hike in the executive budget proposal for next year, which must be submitted in February and must balance spending with the amount of money the REC says is available. The Republican-majority Legislature convenes April 8, so if the REC recognizes the additional monies in March or April, then legislators, rather than the governor, can author the pay raises.

It’s a dangerous political game that likely will enliven the legislative session going into an election season in which the governor and all 144 seats are up. Incumbents are loath to alienate large blocks of voters before an election.

Louisiana has 48,749 public school teachers. Another 38,749 workers drive school buses and serve as aides, clerical workers and skilled craftsmen.

Today, the regional average, as defined by the Southern Regional Education Board, is $50,955 per year, according to the latest estimate. Teacher pay in Louisiana averages $49,745.

Nationally, teachers today are paid on average $60,483 annually, according to a recent survey conducted by the National Education Association.

In 2018, teachers walked out of their classrooms in Arizona, Oklahoma, and West Virginia before legislators in those states agreed to pay raises: 5 percent more in West Virginia; $6,100 more in Oklahoma; and a 20 percent increase over three years for Arizona teachers.

Larry Carter, who heads the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, held out the possibility of a similar response, saying in November that teachers want to see “true discussions.” Four years ago, the union was one of the first backers of Edwards’s bid to become governor from the backbench of the Louisiana House.

The Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, while supportive of teacher pay raises, is preparing to fight back if tax breaks are rolled back or taxes are increased.

“If they are thinking that they are going to use the issue to increase taxes, then I have bad news for you, you don’t need to do that,” LABI President Stephen Waguespack told AM Baton Rouge on Talk 107.3 FM radio.

Meanwhile, Republican majority states like Georgia, Texas, Indiana and Mississippi are seeking substantial pay raises for their public school teachers this year, with some bills proposing rollbacks of tax breaks to pay for the pay hikes.

Commissioner of Administration Dardenne says that’s not necessary in Louisiana — the economy is better and the projected increase in revenues cover the modest salary raise for teachers.

“We’re just playing a game right now by not recognizing the reality that we face,” Dardenne said at Thursday’s REC meeting. “It defies logic, but it doesn’t defy politics.”

Follow Mark Ballard on Twitter, @MarkBallardCnb.