By David Jacobs | The Center Square
Louisiana legislators on Friday rapped Gov. John Bel Edwards’ administration for allowing $60 million in state employee pay raises to go forward during the COVID-19-driven economic downturn.
Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne said the State Civil Service Commission would have approved the raises regardless, forcing cuts to other spending lawmakers had approved.
“I just find it absolutely insane that we’re giving out $60 million in pay raises when my constituents are losing their jobs,” said state Sen. Kirk Talbot, a River Ridge Republican.
An additional 9,919 Louisiana workers filed new unemployment claims in the week ending Aug. 8, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. That’s down from the 13,401 who filed initial claims the week of Aug. 1. But continuing claims – those who filed for unemployment benefits at least two weeks in a row – remain near 300,000 in the state.
Lawmakers approved “market rate” adjustments for civil service workers before the pandemic. Legislators voted this year to hold back funding to the fall to make sure state government could afford to grant the raises.
Edwards vetoed the language holding back the raises, partly because he said it infringed on the Civil Service Commission’s constitutional authority. Legislators voted not to hold a veto session.
The raises would have been given regardless of whether there was a specific appropriation unless the commission approved a “layoff avoidance plan,” Dardenne said.
“It was made very clear to us that there was not an inkling in that commission to do that,” he said.
During Friday’s meeting of the Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget, which includes members of the state House of Representatives and Senate, Dardenne presented a preliminary “deficit avoidance plan” showing how the administration might make $100 million in mid-fiscal year cuts if needed. The initial plan, which is meant to give legislators an idea about the administration’s thinking, would use $75 million in enhanced federal funds for the Medicaid program the federal government has approved through the end of the year.
Officials also gave updates about the dispersal of federal CARES Act pandemic relief dollars. Dardenne said $227 million of the $525 million available for local government entities has been dispersed, and said he expects to pay out all of the money.
State Treasurer John Schroder discussed the Main Street Recovery Grant Program which reimburses small businesses for COVID-19-related expenses. The first batch of checks, totaling $177,174.24, have been sent out, he said.
He said almost $14 million of the fund is obligated, leaving more than $261 million still unobligated. The program for the first three weeks was reserved for businesses that had not received federal aid. That’s no longer the case, though any federal aid received must have been spent.
“There’s plenty of money,” Schroder said.
Department of Revenue Secretary Kimberly Robinson said 240,000 people have applied for the $250 “hazard” payments for “essential” workers who worked outside their homes during the COVID-19 “stay at home” order. As of Friday, 69,000 payments worth $17 million had been approved and sent, she said. The program’s total budget is $50 million.