Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Louisiana Senate leaders plan to push for teacher pay raise

by BIZ Magazine

By Julie O’Donoghue, Louisiana Illuminator

Louisiana Senate leaders intend to push to give public school teachers a pay raise in their budget proposal, setting up a showdown with House members over the state’s annual spending plan that must go into effect July 1. 

“I think the teachers will get a raise,” Senate Finance Committee Chairman Mack “Bodi” White, R-Central, said confidently in a short interview Thursday.

The Louisiana House voted just last week to remove a salary increase for K-12 school teachers from its budget proposal, against the wishes of the Senate and Gov. John Bel Edwards. Instead, the House prioritized paying off the state’s outstanding retirement system debt a few years earlier than expected.

Republicans control the House and Senate and generally try to stick together in opposition to the Democratic governor, but the disagreement over how to spend the state’s $1.9 billion in additional revenue has split legislative leaders in recent weeks.

“We’re going to be working with the Senate to try to restore this very critical funding,” Edwards said Thursday during a press conference.

House GOP leaders say their strategy to pay off $950 million in public employee and teacher retirement debt could eventually result in more than $200 million in savings for the state. Local school systems would also see savings, which school districts could then use to give teacher pay raises at the local level, they said.

But the governor and Senate leaders have pushed back on that House assertion, saying the numbers don’t necessarily work as the House leadership suggests. 

“I don’t believe suggesting the locals will be able to give out a pay raise equally is reality,” Senate President Page Cortez, R-Lafayette, said in an interview Monday.

The legislature can’t force local school districts to give a teacher pay hike with any money freed up through the early retirement payments, the governor and senators have reiterated. The amount of money each school district receives could also vary, meaning that wealthier school districts might be put in a better position to give raises than poor ones. 

Most charter schools also won’t see any extra money from the early retirement payments because the majority of them don’t participate in the state retirement system. 

“You create a system of haves and have nots,” Cortez, a former teacher, said of the House strategy. 

Senators and the governor’s office have also expressed concern school districts would have to wait as much as two years to see extra money from the early retirement payments. Any potential money locals could use for a pay raise would be delayed. 

“I think the majority of the senators are committed to taking care of teachers directly,” Senate Democratic Caucus Chairman Gerald Boudreaux of Lafayette said in an interview Thursday. “We already have a teacher shortage.” 

Boudreaux also said legislators should “avoid being hypocrites” when it comes to the state spending plan. 

The House included $44.8 million worth of legislator pet projects in its spending plan, and the Senate is expected to add tens of millions of dollars in similar spending.

If lawmakers are going to include“pork” — as Boudreaux called the pet projects — in the budget, it should also find the money for teacher raises, he said.

While the House’s budget doesn’t include a teacher pay raise, they have set aside money for several other public employee groups to get a pay hike. Its proposal includes higher pay for local police officers and university faculty. House members are also working on a plan to give Louisiana State Police a salary increase.

Reaching agreement on a spending plan will be more difficult this year. Giving a teacher pay raise costs nearly $200 million and would likely require state lawmakers to bust through a constitutionally mandated spending cap

The state of Louisiana is expected to take in so much extra money over the next 18 months that it is bumping up against the state’s expenditure limit in the current budget cycle and next fiscal year. 

Edwards’ plan — and likely the one the Senate will propose over the next two weeks — requires the state to exceed that restriction. The cap can only be lifted if two-thirds of legislators in the House and Senate agree to do so.

So far, House leaders have been skeptical they can get two-thirds of their members to vote to exceed the limit. Conservative Republicans are wary of more government spending and reluctant to take a vote that would signal their endorsement of higher state spending overall. 

The House budget plan relies on paying down so much retirement debt, in part, because debt payments don’t count toward the spending cap limit. Essentially, those debt payments allow legislators to spend the money available without having to take the cap-busting vote.

Senators have suggested if the two chambers can’t come to a compromise budget plan before the legislature is scheduled to adjourn June 8, lawmakers might be called back into a special session to resolve its financial plan.

Edwards said Thursday it would be unfortunate if the legislature wasn’t able to wrap up its budget negotiations by adjournment. A special session would not only cost the state money, but it also could leave state agencies and school districts in limbo.

“That would be beyond irresponsible. It’s hard for me to fathom that that would happen,” the governor said about the possibility of a special session.

Editor Greg LaRose contributed to this report.

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