Louisiana’s latest budget proposal: Bridges prioritized, university faculty pay raise reduced

Julie O’Donoghue, Louisiana Illuminator

Bridges and road projects were prioritized over teacher and university faculty pay in the latest Louisiana budget plan unveiled this weekend. Local law enforcement and first responders also remain without the permanent raise that Gov. John Bel Edwards had pushed to give. 

The Louisiana Senate Finance Committee moved budget bills with hundreds of amendments Friday and Sunday. Legislative leadership is hoping to finalize its budget plan by the end of this week, two weeks ahead of the normal schedule. 

The Legislature’s GOP majority  wants to pass the budget early so they are still in their regular session when Edwards is required to issue budget item vetoes. That timeline would make it easier for Republican lawmakers to overrule the Democratic governor’s budget changes and possibly lessen the governor’s leverage over legislators.

Still, the budget process is complicated by the fact that lawmakers are dealing with billions of dollars in funding that they don’t normally have. 

Louisiana has an unprecedented amount of money to spend over the next 14 months thanks to much better than expected revenue projections that primarily can be attributed to hurricane  and pandemic recovery.

The extra funding includes a $699 million surplus from the last budget cycle, $1.6 billion in unexpected revenue in the current budget cycle that ends June 30, and $1.4 billion in leftover federal COVID-19 aid.

That additional money is more of a one-time shot than a sustained increase in resources, however. Louisiana may have reached its peak in terms of tax revenue exceeding projections, according to state economists.

Next year, lawmakers should expect to have less money available, in part because of a dip in overall tax collections. On top of that downturn, Legislators have also scheduled a large sales tax cut for 2025 that will cause state funding to automatically plummet by hundreds of millions of dollars annually.

Because the state’s largesse is only temporary, senators said they want to avoid permanent spending increases to government programs. Instead, they focused on investing in transportation and higher education projects that wouldn’t require ongoing support in future years.  

New Baton Rouge bridge allocated $300 million, Lake Charles bridge gets $200 million

Lawmakers announced Sunday that they would agree to allocate $300 million to a new Mississippi River bridge in the Baton Rouge area. This is less than the $500 million Edwards had requested, but enough to attract more federal support for the project, Senate President Page Cortez said.

The money would be used, in part, to upgrade Louisiana Highway 30, which runs along the eastern side of the Mississippi River in East Baton Rouge and Ascension parishes. The road cuts through Republican House Speaker Clay Schexnayder’s district and is expected to feed into the new bridge, wherever it ends up being located. 

Senators also allocated $200 million to the new Lake Charles Interstate 10 bridge project, which Edwards had only proposed giving $100 million.

They set aside $200 million for the proposed Interstate 49 South connection from Lafayette to New Orleans and $150 million for a road and bridge “preservation fund” that will pay for upgrades to existing infrastructure. 

Higher education faculty pay raises reduced from 5% to 3% 

In the current budget plan, legislators are lowering the governor’s higher education faculty pay raise from 5% to 3% for the coming school year, Cortez said. That reduces the  overall funding for the pay raise from a total $31.7 million to $21.2 million in the next budget cycle. 

Instead of raising pay for faculty more across the board, senators opted to increase pay in specific higher education programs that supposedly have a difficult time recruiting professors. Pennington Biomedical Research Center is getting $250,000 to offer some of its faculty members more money, and LSU has been allocated $2 million to pay for “cancer-related” jobs. 

The legislators also put that pay raise money into general funding boosts for specific higher education programs. Among those getting additional funding are LSU’s defense cybersecurity programs in Baton Rouge and Shreveport ($5 million), Southern University’s beef cattle research program ($400,000), Southern University-New Orleans’ online programs ($2 million), Louisiana Tech’s dental program ($1 million), and a broadband training program at Louisiana’s community and technical colleges ($10 million). 

K-12 teachers pay raise stays flat at $1,500, despite governor’s wish for more 

Lawmakers declined to take Edwards’ suggestion to increase K-12 school teacher and support staff pay raises further than had already been recommended in previous drafts of the budget. 

The Senate committee kept the K-12 school raises at $1,500 for teachers and $750 for support staff. The governor had wanted to boost them to $2,000 and $1,000, respectively, which would have cost the state an additional $50 million in future budget cycles.

Senators worried about the ongoing impact if K-12 school staff received a larger pay increase, especially given the revenue cuts the state is expecting over the next few years. Cortez said local governments should consider chipping in more funding themselves to boost teacher salaries. 

Louisiana teachers have received state raises totaling $3,300 over the past four years, but their pay is still lower than the Southern state regional average for teachers overall. 

Local law enforcement given one-time bonus instead of permanent pay increase

Legislators have proposed a one-time pay increase of $100 per month for 12 months for local law enforcement officers and first responders. Edwards had wanted this increase in supplemental pay to be permanent, but lawmakers have resisted including it beyond the next fiscal cycle. It’s expected to cost $25.7 million overall. 

North Louisiana gets $10 million for high-speed rail project

Senators have proposed putting $10 million toward a high-speed rail project that would go through North Louisiana while running from Atlanta to Dallas. Lawmakers had already agreed to set aside $12.5 million for the proposed commuter rail between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. 

Cortez said Sen. Greg Tarver, a Democrat from Shreveport, pushed for this north Louisiana rail funding. The governor had recommended putting all of that money – $25 million in total – exclusively toward the Baton-Rouge-to-New-Orleans commuter rail project.

New prison system, child welfare workers staff given pay increase

Senators have included money to boost entry-level pay for prison guards ($8.8 million) and child welfare workers ($8.6 million), though it’s not clear how much the pay for those particular jobs will go up. The positions, which come with annual salaries slightly over $30,000 per year, have proven difficult to fill during the COVID-19 pandemic.

More money for juvenile justice center security

The senators have put an additional $5 million toward upgrading security at juvenile justice centers around the state.

The Office of Juvenile Justice has had a number of high-profile attacks on staff, riots and escapes from those facilities in recent months. Officials have expressed an interest in raising walls and building out individual rooms, as opposed to dormitories, at the centers. 

Millions more in lawmakers pet projects

Like the House, senators have proposed spending millions of dollars on the legislators’ preferred festivals, theaters, art projects, local police departments and nonprofits that wouldn’t normally receive state funding.

This includes money for the Shrimp and Petroleum Festival in Morgan City ($35,000), Shreveport Stuffed Shrimp Festival ($12,500), City of Central Athletic Foundation ($1.1 million) and Old Catholic Cemetery in Lake Charles ($100,000). 

At least $80 million is left without a purpose

Cortez said there is at least $80 million the Legislature hasn’t allocated to any purpose yet. He said this money might be used to cover costs of infrastructure and building projects funded in the current budget cycle if state can’t continue to pay for them next year.

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