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As spending bill advances, here are the key differences in Edwards' vs lawmakers' priorities

Paul Braun
House Appropriations Committee Chairman Jerome "Zee" Zeringue (R-Houma) discusses his committee's changes to the state's spending bills with Rep. Dustin Miller (D-Opelousas). April 18, 2022.

The House Appropriations Committee advanced a slew of state spending bills Monday that would set the operating budget for the upcoming fiscal year and appropriate the unprecedented $2 billion in excess state dollars lawmakers have to work with.

As Paul Braun reports, today’s action underscores differences in Gov. John Bel Edwards’ and state legislative leaders’ priorities of how the money should be spent on infrastructure projects, education and other state programs.

Paul spoke with WWNO Host Karl Lengel about the developments.

Karl Lengel: Paul, where do state lawmakers stand in their annual budget negotiations after today? 

Paul Braun: It’s been a little while since we talked about the budget in this space, but it’s been slowly simmering on the backburner. Now it’s coming back up to a rolling boil.

You’ll remember that the budget situation this year is unique. Conservative revenue estimating over the past couple of years, followed by better than expected tax collections and then an influx of coronavirus relief dollars. left the state awash with more than $2 billion more to spend than they originally anticipated.

Gov. John Bel Edwards released his official budget proposal before the session even started and included big spending increases for education and infrastructure. But that was just a starting point.

The House Appropriations Committee and the Senate Finance Committee spent the first few weeks of this regular session hearing from state agencies and the public about their needs. Negotiations, up to this point, have largely taken place behind closed doors.

That has changed now that lawmakers on that House Appropriations Committee have made their changes to Edwards plan and advanced the spending bills out of committee and to the House floor.

KL: And how does the committee’s budget differ from what Edwards proposed earlier this year?

PB: The Appropriations Committee reduced the amount it would put towards a few of the big line items in Edwards’ budget proposal.

For example, they want to send less to the Unemployment Insurance Trust, spend less on drinking water and sewer system improvements and less on developing a passenger rail line between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, but they’re still making investments in all of those areas.

I think the most newsworthy of these reductions came in the committee’s handling of Edwards' plan to devote $500 million to a down payment for a new Mississippi River Bridge in Baton Rouge. Most legislative leaders, with a couple of notable exceptions, do not want to put that much money toward a project that would likely take more than a decade to complete, and have a total price tag of more than $2.5 billion dollars, especially when there are so many other infrastructure needs out there.

So instead of devoting all of that to the Baton Rouge bridge project, they are putting $500 million in a special fund that could funnel those dollars to all sorts of transportation projects, $100 million of which would explicitly go toward other infrastructure needs across the state — not the bridge project.

Jay Dardenne, Gov. Edwards’ top budget advisor was in House Appropriations today and he said he didn’t love that idea. He argued that now is the time to make the full half a billion dollar commitment to the Baton Rouge bridge to get the ball rolling and unlock federal grants.

Some other notable additions include about $33 million in special projects, like parks and community centers in lawmakers' home districts.

KL: So, those are some of the changes. What are some items that survived this latest step in the budget process?

PB: It’s pretty remarkable how much of Edwards’ spending plan stayed intact. Big increases for higher education and early childhood education made it through committee at the same levels. Same for the $400 million payment for levee and hurricane mitigation improvements the feds made in New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina.

And Louisiana lawmakers kept the $1,500 per year pay raise for K-12 teachers and $750 raise for school support staff in the plan. That was a big part of Edwards’ budget proposal and his multi-year push to bring teacher salaries here up to the Southern Regional Average.

After speaking with Appropriations Committee Chairman Jerome “Zee” Zeringue (R-Houma), he seemed wary to commit to increasing those teacher and support staff raises to $2,000 and $1,000 if the state revenue forecast improves more as Edwards has suggested.

With all this extra cash on the table, the legislature is toeing a fine line with the state’s expenditure limits that they themselves instituted to prevent bloat in state spending. Zeringue said bumping up teacher pay or returning spending for some programs to the levels Edwards originally proposed would likely put the state over those limits.

KL: What’s next, and what should we keep an eye on through this process?

PB: Well, all of the state spending bills are due on the House floor Thursday morning. After they pass the House, the Senate will get its chance to shape the state’s spending policies.

The timing of all of this is significant. Anyone who has followed the budget process in Louisiana for a while knows that the operating budget and accompanying spending bills — the only legislation they are constitutionally obligated to complete each year — are usually finished in the final hours of the session.

That changed last year when lawmakers finalized the budget a full two weeks before the end of the session. They’re on pace to finish even sooner this year, which could give them enough time to override any line-item vetoes issued by Gov. Edwards.

Republican legislative leaders are feeling confident after their successful override of Edwards’ veto of their congressional maps, though it may be difficult to marshal the same level of support for an override if Edwards decides to nix some pork projects from the budget.

Paul Braun is WRKF's Capitol Access reporter.

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