Gov. Edwards unveils proposed budget

By Hailey Auglair and Evan Saacks | LSU Manship School News Service

BATON ROUGE — Gov. John Bel Edwards proposed a $32 billion state budget Friday focusing on education as a high priority, with increases in funding for early childhood, K-12 and higher education, including TOPS scholarships.

The budget, for the 2020-2021 fiscal year beginning July 1, was presented by Jay Dardenne, the commissioner of administration, to the Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget. It marks the beginning of negotiations that will play out in the legislative session starting in March. 

The governor proposed increasing spending by nearly $285 million overall.But lawmakers will not be asked to raise any taxes this year, Dardenne said.

“This increase to higher education is a very significant investment,” Dardenne said.

It would increase early childhood funding by over $25 million and higher education by nearly $35 million. It also would the money for TOPS scholarships by $5.56 million as more students have become eligible.

However, these increases are dependent on about $100 million in funding that is not currently available because Edwards, a Democrat, and the new Republican leaders, House Speaker Clay Schexnayder and Senate President Page Cortez, have not been able to reach agreement on an official estimate of what the state’s revenue. The Republicans proposed using a lower forecast than Edwards.

As a result, Dardenne said the administration viewed its proposal as a starting point for negotiations.

Despite Edwards’ promises for teacher pay raises during his reelection campaign, there is no funding explicitly allocated for them. Dardenne said the K-12 could use some of the increased funding for pay raises, but it would be up to local districts to decide what to do. 

The proposed funding for higher education is still not as high it was nearly a decade ago, but the total has been steadily hiking back up since 2016 when the state faced an overall $2 billion budget shortfall. 

Edwards’ proposal includes a $10.9 million increase next year in statewide adjustments to fund mandated costs, like retirement benefits for university staff. 

Sen. Bret Allain, R-Franklin, said this increase would greatly benefit smaller schools that have struggled to pay these costs.

“This is the No. 1 budget problem at Nicholls State University, McNeese State and a lot of these smaller universities,” Allain said. “We’re actually paying more in mandatory costs back to the state than we’re getting. The argument’s been made we’d be better off separated from the state.”

Dardenne said that other spending increases are designed “to make sure that we make a very real, meaningful commitment to education, which is the critical key to getting Louisianans out of poverty.” 

The governor also proposed a $3.1 million increase to juvenile justice, which anticipates an increase of 67 violent youth who will enter secure care facilities. That is as a result of Raise the Age Law under which the state no longer automatically tries 17-year-olds as adults.

As a result of earlier changes in the criminal justice system, the number of people incarcerated in Louisiana has decreased since 2012 by almost 10,000. But the state ranks first in the country again in incarcerating people after Oklahoma dropped to No. 2.

“The Department of Corrections, the Workforce Development Commission, the administration and particularly the Community & Technical College System are all working together to try and develop meaningful programs that will provide the kind of training that would enable released inmates to get jobs,” Dardenne said. “Frankly, criminal justice reform will be a failure if we’re not successful in accomplishing that.”

Major statewide increases in funding risk management, technology services and group benefits are also in the proposed budget. 

The state is working to update its 40-year-old computer system at the Office of Motor Vehicles, which had trouble recovering from cyberattacks in November, Dardenne said. Louisiana has spent nearly $3 million responding to ransomware attacks.

“The cybersecurity threat is now very real for everyone, particularly at the governmental level,” Dardenne said.

The proposed budget also includes nearly $23 million in increased funding required in bills passed by lawmakers. That includes pay raises for judges, district attorneys and assistant DA’s. It also includes increased payments to sheriffs who house state inmates in local prisons and Medicaid expansion for children with disabilities.

Dardenne said the administration is working to connect state and federal databases to better verify eligibility for Medicaid.

“This change is helping us get a much better improvement in what we all want,” he said. “Whether you’re arguing that there’s too much fraud or that there needs to be more people identified to get services, we’re going to get good data that’s going to help us answer all those questions.”