Monday, May 20, 2024

Louisiana teacher raises, construction projects hinge on state lawmaker budget negotiations

by BIZ Magazine

By Julie O’Donoghue, Louisiana Illuminator

Louisiana legislators could struggle to fund public school teacher pay raises and a state construction plan for roads, bridges, universities and coastal restoration if lawmakers refuse to raise the state’s spending cap, state senators stressed this week.

Several senators want to grant a $2,000 annual pay increase for public school teachers and a $1,000 annual raise for school staff in the state budget that goes into effect July 1. But they suggested the funding might have to be pulled from popular construction projects for roads and college campuses if House members don’t agree to spend more of Louisiana’s revenue. 

This talking point is just the latest in a weeks-long standoff pitting Gov. John Bel Edwards and senators against House lawmakers. Louisiana has more than enough money available for teacher pay raises and a robust state construction program, but its constitutionally-mandated spending limit has placed hundreds of millions of dollars off limits to legislators for now. 

By law, state lawmakers cannot exceed the state’s spending cap set annually without two-thirds of the members of each chamber voting to raise that limit. The governor and senators are in favor of removing that restriction in the current budget cycle and the next, in part so they can use Louisiana’s unprecedented cash resources to put more money into transportation, coastal restoration and university projects. 

But the House — where conservative Republicans are more skeptical of growing government — hasn’t agreed to surpass the spending threshold. . 

This week, Senate leaders ramped up pressure on House members by signaling the upper chamber might pull nearly $200 million out of the existing House budget plan if House members refuse to lift the spending cap. 

The Edwards administration estimates the House budget approved earlier this month already exceeds the state’s spending limit by $193 million for the fiscal year that starts July 1. The House disputes that number, saying its own staff puts the same plan under the cap by $131 million.

“Our fiscal staff is who I have to trust,” said Rep. Jack McFarland, R-Jonesboro, head of the House Conservative Caucus and a member of the House Appropriations Committee, which helps write the budget.

The Senate may lean toward using the Edwards administration’s number however. If legislators don’t, they run the risk of the governor unilaterally cutting hundreds of millions of dollars of spending out of the budget plan lawmakers want, said Senate President Page Cortez, R-Lafayette..

“If the executive branch and the [state Division of Administration] believe that they are over by $193 million, he will veto [construction] projects,” Cortez told senators this week, referring to Edwards.

The Senate could also resort to sidelining construction projects in order to remain under the spending limit. If the Senate has to find at least $193 million in cuts to balance the budget, one of the easiest places to go is those building projects.

The current version of the construction plan, put together by the House, includes at least $472 million that could be easily removed if the lawmakers need to get under the spending limit, though eliminating that funding might slow down popular building projects.

“It looks like they are going to use [the construction budget] to make changes,” said Rep. Stuart Bishop, R-Lafayette, who put together the House’s version of the construction plan. “I’ll do everything in my power to make sure every House member is taken care of.”

Under the current plan, coastal restoration efforts are supposed to receive at least $107 million worth of cash that could be at risk for removal. University and community college campuses, which are supposed to receive a little over $50 million in cash for building and maintenance next year, could also lose money.

“If we don’t up the expenditure limit, I don’t think that money will be available,” said Sen. Bret Allain, R-Franklin, who oversees the construction budget in the Senate. “If you don’t up the expenditure limit, particularly the cash portions [of the construction budget] cannot be funded.”

Lawmakers will also have to make ever greater cuts to the construction plan and other areas if they want to put the teacher and school staff pay raise in the budget without raising the spending cap. The proposed K-12 school pay raise would cost nearly $200 million on top of the $193 million in spending they would have to remove if they stick to the governor’s figures.

House members had attempted to work around the $200 million teacher pay price tag by paying down teacher retirement debt, which they believe doesn’t count toward the spending cap. Proponents of that idea believe it would free up enough funding for local school districts to hand out their own K-12 school salary increases.

But senators are skeptical of that scheme, expressing concern that some school districts could end up with much larger teacher pay raises than others.

But Louisiana’s Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) hasn’t agreed to go along with the Senate’s teacher pay plan yet, which could make it harder for the Senate to include a teacher pay increase in the budget. Louisiana law requires the state school board to approve any permanent teacher pay increase before legislators and the governor can hand one out.

“The successful passage of this annual funding proposal ultimately hinges on a consensus among BESE members and lawmakers on education funding priorities,” said BESE president Holly Boffy. “As we move toward that consensus, our Board remains committed to working with the legislature to advance a formula that increases funding for education and recognizes our teachers.”

Without the buy-in from BESE yet, senators are in a bit of a holding pattern when it comes to teacher pay, though legislators hinted they could use creative, procedural maneuvers to work around that barrier.

“We’re not going to leave here without a teacher’s pay raise,” said Sen. Cleo Fields, D-Baton Rouge, head of the Senate Education Committee.

The Senate, House and governor are running out of time to reach an agreement. Louisiana’s spending plan for the next budget cycle is supposed to be in place before lawmakers adjourn on the evening of June 8.

If they fail to come to a compromise by then, the legislators will have to come back into a special session later in June — and will face an even higher political hurdle to clear. In a special session, three-quarters of members in the House and Senate would have to agree to a budget plan, more than the current two-thirds threshold for approval in the current session.

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