School stock

Advocate file photo

If you’re a public school teacher or support worker in Louisiana, there’s some indisputable good news emerging from the ongoing legislative session: Just about everybody gathered in Baton Rouge wants to give you a raise, albeit a modest one.

There’s also a catch, and that’s because nothing in politics happens in a vacuum.

Two competing proposals are still alive as the session enters its final weeks.

One, backed by Gov. John Bel Edwards and approved by the Senate this week by a whopping 37-1 vote, is part of a larger proposal approved by the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. Senate Concurrent Resolution 3 would raise teacher pay by $1,000 a year, increase support worker salaries by $500, and also steer $39 million in direct aid to schools. Lawmakers cannot adjust or amend the BESE recommendation, only pass or reject it entirely.

The second, included in the House-passed budget, would appear to be slightly more generous, offering $1,200 to teachers and $600 to support workers. But the raises would not automatically recur next year or the year after, so while lawmakers may be unlikely to roll back the increases, they also cannot guarantee them for the future. Also, the House measure, included in a budget that passed 100-1, does not include the $39 million lump sum for schools, which some Edwards adversaries argue is unaffordable.

How this will all resolve itself remains to be seen, and given the modest amount and the widespread agreement, it’s hard to believe that teachers will walk away from the session empty-handed.

But the fact that an idea with so much support is still a flashpoint is a symptom of what’s been ailing the Legislature ever since the day that Edwards was sworn in, and the House Republicans who make up the chamber’s majority bucked his choice for speaker, fellow Democrat Walt Leger of New Orleans.

They chose Republican Taylor Barras of New Iberia over more openly partisan Cameron Henry, R-Metairie, who got the chairmanship of the Appropriations Committee as a consolation prize. But Henry’s style of politics quickly prevailed and set the tone for all that followed. It’s no coincidence that he’s the man behind the competing teacher pay proposal.

There’s something almost comical about politicians fighting over such a small dollar figure, but the battle is a logical extension of the budget battles that dominated Edwards’ and the current Legislature’s first three years. It took an exhausting 10 legislative sessions to adopt enough revenue to dig the state out of the deep hole that former Gov. Bobby Jindal, with the help of willing prior legislators, had dug. This even though lawmakers wound up choosing the route of least resistance, a temporary bump in the state sales tax, rather than taking the opportunity to enact actual tax reform.

The resolution of the fiscal cliff didn’t end the fighting, though. First Henry and then Barras decided to make mischief with the normally routine revenue estimating process. They spent months refusing to accept estimates offered by state economists, which only succeeded in throwing a wrench into the governor’s standard budgeting process, for no apparent reason other than to deny him the ability to propose financial support for popular needs.

The fight over teacher pay appears driven by the same dynamic: a combination of political gamesmanship and a desire to claim credit — and deny bragging rights to others — as everyone involved prepares to face the voters’ judgement this fall.

Forget putting aside differences. In an environment like this, too many pols are going out of their way to create them.


Follow Stephanie Grace on Twitter, @stephgracela.