Teacher raises back in Louisiana budget as spending cap dispute continues
Louisiana public school teachers and staff will get $2,000 and $1,000 annual raises, respectively, under a budget plan the state Senate Finance Committee approved Saturday afternoon. It is one of the few major spending items on which Gov. John Bel Edwards and legislators have reached a consensus in recent weeks.
But Senate President Page Cortez, R-Lafayette, warned there were still many critical needs that would remain unfunded if the Louisiana House of Representatives doesn’t agree to raise the state’s constitutionally-mandated spending cap.
The Senate committee budget proposal outlines over a billion dollars in university building projects, hospital funding, local parish construction and government debt payments that would only go forward if the House agrees to remove the spending restriction.
The release of the Senate spending proposal Saturday sets the stage for the final few days of the legislative session that ends Thursday. Senators and the governor will now be able to point to specific projects and initiatives – like more than $300 million in local hospital payments – that won’t move forward if the Louisiana House refuses to lift its spending threshold.
Louisiana lawmakers are so flush with cash this year that they are required to vote to raise the state’s spending cap in order to use most of the extra $2.2 billion available.
Senators voted unanimously to remove the cap earlier this week and promised to put most of the extra money toward one-time expenses – such as road, bridge, port and college campus projects. But House conservatives, who are philosophically opposed to growing government, have blocked those efforts so far.
The next five days will likely show how serious House members are about keeping the spending limit in place. The Senate spending plan now gives local hospitals, universities, sheriffs and parish officials a specific list of projects and programs that won’t get money if the spending cap isn’t lifted. Senate leaders hope those interests will put pressure on House members to lift the cap to get their priorities funded.
The Senate plan released on Saturday also indicated the senators wanted certain programs and initiatives funded — including the teacher pay raises — regardless of whether the spending cap gets lifted or not.
The Senate Finance Committee also put an additional $61 million in “differential” teacher pay — money used to boost salaries for hard-to-fill school positions, such as science and math teachers — into the budget plan that is not tied to a spending cap vote. College and university faculty are also expected to see a modest raise regardless of whether the cap is lifted.
The Senate plan also prioritizes funding for local water and sewerage systems ($80 million) and puts more into coastal restoration projects ($40 million) than the Louisiana House did in its budget proposal.
An across-the-board cut to the state government of $95 million imposed by the Louisiana House was also restored in the Senate committee, and there’s $17 million more for an incentive program to lure property insurers to the Louisiana market. Those allocations aren’t contingent on the spending cap being lifted either.
If the House won’t lift the spending cap, Cortez said the Senate would want to put most of the state’s extra funding, $1.6 billion, toward paying down public employee and retirement debt. But some House members might prefer it go into easier-to-access savings accounts the future governor and lawmakers can use when a large sales tax cut goes into effect in 2025.
It’s not clear when the full Senate will vote on the budget plan yet. The Senate leadership doesn’t want to take that step, which will move the budget bills back over to the House, until a House committee agrees to move legislation to lift the spending cap to the full House for a vote.
A stalemate could also materialize on that front. House Conservative Caucus Chairman Jack McFarland, R-Jonesboro, said in an interview Saturday he wasn’t sure House members would agree to act on the spending cap measure without seeing the Senate budget bills first.
“It does give me a bit of concern,” McFarland said.
McFarland added that the House also hasn’t had enough time to look through the Senate budget plan to form an opinion on it yet.
The House is scheduled to convene at 4 p.m. Sunday.