Louisiana lawmakers sift through spending ideas for new cash

Local News
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Now that Louisiana’s governor and legislative leaders have settled on updated state income projections, the haggling begins over how to spend the newly available millions.

Gov. John Bel Edwards and the Legislature are sifting through a long list of competing requests for new dollars, with college leaders, early childhood education advocates and agency chiefs among those vying for the cash.

Three different pots of money are available after the state income forecasting panel boosted its projections: a $308 million surplus from the budget year that ended June 30, $110 million in unbudgeted money for the current year and $119 million in the financial year that begins July 1.

The Democratic governor and majority-GOP Legislature will decide how to spend the money in the ongoing two-month legislative session that must end June 6.

WHAT SEEMS LIKELY

Even when it was uncertain what agreement the governor and House Republican leaders would strike on the income forecast, both sides introduced budget proposals for the upcoming 2019-20 year that included a $1,000 raise for public school teachers and a $500 pay hike for school support workers, like custodians and teaching aides. Widespread support exists for the raises, though details of the salary increases still could change.

Also expected to win overwhelming backing are dollars to fill gaps in this year’s budget for the TOPS college tuition program and the payments local sheriffs receive for housing state prisoners. Those programs often get late-year infusions of cash to cover costs.

The budget proposal filed by House Republican leaders, which is the measure lawmakers are advancing, doesn’t contain enough money to keep TOPS students from facing cuts in assistance next year, but lawmakers appear likely to add that money, and Edwards supports the addition.

WHAT THE GOVERNOR WANTS

Running for a second term on the October ballot against two Republican challengers, Edwards wants spending increases in next year’s budget for colleges, K-12 public education, the child welfare agency and juvenile justice programs. One of the larger items is a $39 million increase in block grant financing proposed for K-12 school districts.

Edwards also offered plans for spending $80 million of this year’s unbudgeted money. He wants to finish a computer system upgrade across agencies, repay FEMA for Louisiana’s share of some disaster recovery costs and give more money to the corrections department. In higher education, he recommended increased spending to help schools facing accreditation reviews, offer more online resources to students and bolster university research and agricultural facilities.

OTHER IDEAS

House Appropriations Chairman Cameron Henry, whose committee is the first stop for budget bills, joked that he’s received requests that far outstrip available financing. The Jefferson Parish Republican said committee members want to continue “working through the money agencies have before we decide about giving them more.”

Several lawmakers have suggested adding dollars for early childhood development programs, which Edwards didn’t recommend for increases. Advocates are asking for $86 million annually to help children from birth to 3 years old with early learning assistance.

Some Republicans argue that spending everything available on continuing programs will only boost Louisiana government costs long-term. GOP House Speaker Taylor Barras said: “I would hope we don’t spend it all.”

SURPLUS RESTRICTIONS

Under Louisiana’s constitution, surplus dollars can only be spent on one-time expenses, like debt payments, construction work and coastal projects, not ongoing agency expenses and continuing programs.

At least 10 percent of any surplus must pay down retirement debt, and a quarter of a surplus is earmarked for the state’s “rainy day” fund. That will carve about $108 million off the top, leaving $200 million for lawmakers to divvy up for other items.

Edwards has proposed using $55 million for coastal projects.

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