Money lifeboat

Next Monday, July 1, marks the beginning of a new fiscal year in Louisiana, and for once the new year will bring increased state spending in two critical areas: education and infrastructure.

All levels of public education — from early childhood programs to colleges and universities — will see increased funding after a decade of draconian cuts. State lawmakers also approved hundreds of millions of dollars for roads and bridges, which face a $14 billion backlog in necessary repairs and upgrades.

None of this would have been possible without the bipartisan budget compromise lawmakers adopted last year. After two years of gridlock — and seven special legislative sessions — lawmakers finally agreed on a sales tax package that will stabilize state finances through June 2025.

Equally important, lawmakers in the recent legislative session beat back attempts to water down last year’s tax compromise. Holding that line and budgeting carefully produced nearly $400 million in surpluses, which in turn created opportunities to reduce the state’s debt and put more money into infrastructure.

A $1,000 pay raise for teachers, along with a $500 increase for support staff, garnered the most headlines (and most of the K-12 money), but other educational priorities also saw needed hikes in state spending. Among them:

• Local school boards will get a total of $39 million more in discretionary funding. That boost, together with the teacher pay hikes, was a top priority of Gov. John Bel Edwards.

• A decade ago, Louisiana invested heavily in early childhood education programs, but a decade of cuts wiped out state spending for at-risk kids. Finally, the state is beginning to put money back into early childhood programs — nearly $20 million starting July 1 for a variety of programs for kids from birth through age 4.

• Public colleges and universities, after seeing the highest percentage of cuts in the nation under former Gov. Bobby Jindal, likewise will see their first increases in state investment in nearly a decade — $23 million to be exact. Lawmakers also fully funded the popular TOPS college scholarship program.

Lawmakers tapped two pots of money — the state’s surplus and the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster settlement — to fund a list of infrastructure projects. The surplus freed up $55 million for coastal restoration and nearly $150 million for various construction projects, while the BP settlement created nearly $700 million for road and bridge projects as well as brick-and-mortar construction across the state.

While this sounds like great news, the Public Affairs Research Council (PAR), a nonpartisan government watchdog, notes this is one-time money thrown at roughly 5% of the state’s transportation infrastructure needs. PAR warns that this year’s extraordinary expenditures may sound good at election time, but they do not constitute a long-term solution to Louisiana’s transportation problems.

More than anything else, a state’s budget is a declaration of its priorities. While this year’s increased spending on education and infrastructure is a step in the right direction, much more remains to be done. Going forward, lawmakers and the governor need to find recurring sources of significant funding to address Louisiana’s long-term education and infrastructure needs.

This is a commentary from Gambit, produced independently from reporters at the paper.