Louisiana lawmakers pass state budget plan with only temporary teacher pay increase
In the end, Louisiana public school teachers will get a pay increase, but it will only be effective for one year.
During the final, confusing 30 minutes of a two-month legislative session, state lawmakers passed a budget plan Thursday that includes a $2,000 temporary hike for teachers, as well as hundreds of millions of dollars that is supposed to cover universities, transportation needs, coastal restoration and legislators’ pet projects in their home communities.
But lawmakers also reduced funding for the Louisiana Department of Health by $100 million with little explanation about what that cutback might do. Gov. John Bel Edwards and several senators said they were blindsided by the health care change and that it could end up costing the state a few hundred million dollars more when lost federal funding is included.
“There was no heads up. Period,” said Edwards about the health care reduction.
House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, R-Gonzales, and Senate President Page Cortez, R-Lafayette, couldn’t explain what health services might be affected. Edwards vowed to try to lessen the impact, though he wasn’t specific about what action he would take.
The teacher’s pay raise will now function more like a stipend. Lawmakers never came to a consensus with the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) on a school funding formula, which had to be approved by both parties for the raises to carry over from year-to-year.
Now, teachers must hope the next governor and future state lawmakers work the pay raise into a new school funding formula next year. That will ensure it becomes part of their base salary moving forward.
Teachers are not the only ones to get extra money in this state budget cycle with unprecedented resources. Edwards and legislators have spread around most of the $2.2 billion in unexpected revenue available over the next 13 months.
Lawmakers raised pay for public university faculty, local police and judges. They also continued to make heavy investments in infrastructure, with more money going to roads, bridges, college campus buildings, ports, and water and sewage systems. A popular roof fortification program and an incentive fund set up to lure more property insurance companies to the Louisiana market also received more financial support.
With so much money available to them, legislators also took advantage of the state’s largesse to direct hundreds of millions of dollars into their parochial interests and initiatives.
Their budget plan includes tens of millions of dollars in pet projects — allocations that lawmakers request in secret and receive no public vetting. Some of this money is going to nonprofit organizations with which legislators sometimes have a personal connection.
Legislators have also directed millions of dollars to public entities in their home parishes and communities. These include funding for sheriffs, school boards and other local elected officials who might be able to help them with their reelection campaigns later this year.
The money hasn’t been spread around the state evenly. As in other years, legislative leaders’ home parishes are getting more money than other parts of the state. For example, millions of dollars in earlier drafts of the budget were directed to colleges, the local jail and other initiatives in Lafayette Parish, where Cortez and other legislative leaders live.
A small group of conservative lawmakers who threatened to block the use of over a billion dollars of state funding are also expected to get less money in their districts. The governor and legislative leaders intend to punish the 19 House members who didn’t go along with plans to bust the state’s spending cap earlier this week.
Those conservative lawmakers scored a modest victory, however. The state budget plan currently includes $690 million of additional debt payments for public employee retirement, which they had pushed to include. Lawmakers said the large debt payments will help the state save money over the long run.
One of the final sticking points in the state budget negotiations was over how much money should go toward early childhood education programs. A prior cut to federal funding means the state will lose thousands of early childhood education seats. Edwards and children’s advocates had pressed lawmakers to backfill at least some of that lost money with state funding. The Legislature eventually agreed to put $44 million in additional funding toward those programs.
The push for early childhood education is likely what doomed a permanent teacher pay raise. Legislators ended up scuttling the school funding formula in part so they could use some of its money to support more early childhood education slots.
The formula included not only the teachers pay raise, but also $61 million for “differential” pay — extra money given to high-performing teachers and those in hard-to-fill positions, such as science and math.
In the end, lawmakers decided they wanted to divert some of that $61 million for “differential” pay to help retain more early childhood education slots. In doing so, they ended up trashing the school funding formula required to give a permanent raise to teachers.
This budget cycle marks the last one with Edwards in office. While his last year has been characterized by arguments over whether the state has too much money to spend, he took over as governor during one of the largest financial crises in state history.
“Surpluses are better than deficits,” Edwards said.