Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Teacher pay raises, health care programs cut in House version of Louisiana budget

by BIZ Magazine

By Julie O’Donoghue, Louisiana Illuminator

The Louisiana Republican House leadership unveiled a state budget proposal Monday that reduces a proposed K-12 teacher salary increase and likely cuts funding for health care programs for people who are poor, fragile or living with disabilities. 

The spending plan also eliminates thousands of slots for early childhood education programs Gov. John Bel Edwards had pushed to keep, while devoting millions to legislators’ pet projects ahead of this fall’s statehouse elections.

The House Appropriations Committee pushed forward this budget proposal Monday, and it’s expected to be heard by the full House Thursday.

In their budget plan, GOP House leaders have shifted millions of dollars from education initiatives that enjoy widespread support and put it toward debt payments for public retirement systems. The strategy will save state government money in the long run. It also allows conservative lawmakers to sidestep the tricky political issue of having to vote to bust through Louisiana’s constitutionally-imposed spending cap.

But the plan also requires taking funding from popular bipartisan initiatives like early childhood education.

The governor wanted to use $51 million in state funding in the next budget cycle to keep 4,000 to 5,000 early childhood education slots available after federal funding for them runs out. But the House Appropriations Committee removed that allocation from the spending plan.

The House GOP strategy also calls for unknown reductions to state health care programs. At least $174 million has been pulled out of the governor’s budget for the Louisiana Department of Health (LDH). 

GOP legislators said the agency should be able to handle that reduction without having to cut any crucial programs, but LDH Secretary Stephen Russo strongly suggested that would not be possible.

Republican lawmakers are banking on a drop-off in the state’s Medicaid population to offset the healthcare cut they want to make. But because Medicaid is almost entirely paid for with federal dollars, it’s not clear health officials won’t have to cut other programs to absorb the reduction.

Health officials also said the financial decrease could result in a loss of close to $475 million in federal funding on top of the $175 million in health care money the state would eliminate. 

Historically, when the state has had to reduce health care spending, funding for mental health services and people with disabilities has been disproportionately slashed. Some health care spending, such as money for nursing homes, is constitutionally protected and can’t be reduced, which means other health programs must absorb a larger share of the losses.

In their plan, House GOP lawmakers managed to keep most, but not all of the governor’s proposed K-12 teacher pay raise intact. Edwards wants to give teachers at least a $2,000 annual pay increase and school staff an additional $1,000 per year. His salary boosts would cost the state an additional $196 million annually.

The House Appropriations Committee put just $150 million toward the increases. Its members aren’t able to say how much individual teachers might receive with that amount of money.

Not everyone has been asked to lower their expectations either. 

The House Republican leadership gave Attorney General Jeff Landry’s staff pay increases totaling $476,000 in their spending plan. Landry is considered the Republican frontrunner in the race for governor this fall, and legislators may be eager to get into his good graces.

After advocating for an austere approach to government spending for weeks, GOP House members also managed to include millions of dollars for their favored local projects in their proposal. Many are located in communities the House leadership represents.

The projects include:

• $1 million for Ecole Pointe-au-Chien, a Cajun French school in House Speaker Pro Tempore Tanner Magee’s district.
• $1.3 million for the Terrebonne Parish Sheriff’s Office, in Magee and House Appropriation Committee Chairman Jerome Zeringue’s community.
• $1 million for Houma Restoration District in the community Magee and Zeringue represent
• $1.8 million for Ascension Parish Courthouse repairs, where House Speaker Clay Schexnayder lives

In response to a reporter’s post on Twitter regarding Terrebonne projects, Magee said “several buildings were destroyed in downtown Houma during (Hurricane) Ida” and needed support.

The GOP budget plan is also expected to be altered dramatically as it works its way through the legislative process. Funding for several programs could be reduced, for example, if the Senate agrees to hundreds of millions of dollars in tax breaks the House has already passed. 

The governor has the authority to veto individual items legislators add to the spending plan.

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