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Politics

Louisiana House advances spending bills, but receives criticism from Gov. John Bel Edwards

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Alex Tirado
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WRKF
Gov. John Bel Edwards delivers his State of the State address to mark the beginning of Louisiana's 2022 Regular Legislative Session. March 14, 2022.

Today, the state House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly to advance a package of spending bills, including the operating budget for the upcoming fiscal year. But the House version of the bill has drawn some criticism from Gov. John Bel Edwards.

Here to discuss is Capitol Access reporter Paul Braun.

Host Adam Vos: Paul, tell us what happened?

Reporter Paul Braun: As Louisiana lawmakers approach the midpoint of their 2022 regular session, they’ve already

Today, the state House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly to advance a package of spending bills, including the operating budget for the upcoming fiscal

But the House version of the bill has drawn some criticism from Gov. John Bel Edwards.

Well, the big news of the day was the House passing $45 billion in state spending bills this afternoon. The biggest chunk of that is the $38 billion operating budget for the upcoming fiscal year. Discussion and debate on the package took a little more than four hours, and the final product was virtually unchanged from the version we talked about on this program on Monday.

The bill utilizes an unprecedented amount of one-time dollars from leftover federal coronavirus relief dollars and better than expected tax collections. And it includes some of the most significant investments in infrastructure and education that we’ve seen in decades.

Lawmakers have until June 6th — the last day of the session — to finalize all of the spending bills and send them to Edwards. It’s incredibly rare for them to be this far along in the process this early.

Some of that can be attributed to the abundance of cash lawmakers have to spend. It is a lot easier to decide where to spend extra money than it is to haggle over cuts. But some of that can be chalked up to politics and leverage. Lawmakers are rushing to get it done early enough to force Edward to sign the bill — and potentially issue line item vetoes — while lawmakers are still in session, which would allow them to more easily override any of his vetoes.

AV: Has the timing raised any concerns?

PB: It has. The budget is the subject of more scrutiny and closed-door discussion and debate than perhaps any other piece of legislation. So, when it finally comes to the floor, it's not uncommon for it to pass with a unanimous vote. But this time, four conservative Republican representatives voted against the bill.

One of those representatives was Blake Miguez of Erath, and today on the House floor, he voiced his concern that his colleagues weren’t taking enough time to trim funding for programs where possible.

He pointed to long-term budget projections that show our state’s economy and tax revenues dropping once this post-pandemic boom levels off and when a temporary 0.45% sales tax expires in 2025.

The leaders of Miguez’s own party aren’t too worried about this. They said they’ve been careful to pair one-time dollars with one-time expenses and scaled back some of Edwards' more aggressive spending proposals to stay within expenditure limits.

AV: Where’s the conflict between Edwards and state lawmakers over funding priorities?

PB: The biggest disconnect between Edwards and lawmakers is over funding for a new Mississippi River bridge in Baton Rouge. Edwards wants to put a $500 million down payment on the project that still doesn’t have an official location or price tag. Earlier this week, Edwards’ top budget advisor Jay Dardenne said building the bridge, the roads leading up to it and tying into I-10 would likely cost more than $2.5 billion. That was the first time I’ve heard that figure and is the largest I’ve heard thus far.

We haven’t heard as much from Edwards this session as we have over the previous two years. But he called a press conference today to talk about his legislative agenda and funding priorities. He kept coming back to talk about funding the bridge.

He said half-a-billion dollars is a lot of money to set aside for one project, but the state has taken a similar approach on other, albeit smaller, mega projects in the past. And he said the clock is ticking for the state to secure federal funding from President Joe Biden’s Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, and the $500 million is a prerequisite for getting that.

That wasn’t the only cut Edwards was critical of.

When it came to lawmakers' decision not to fund a $100 per month pay increase for police and firefighters, Edwards, a Democrat, flipped the script a little on the GOP legislative leaders who made that call. He said, facetiously, that he thought Louisiana had rejected calls to defund the police, and he said he would push to get that money back in the budget.

And another big question for the remaining budget conversation is whether or not lawmakers will increase the proposed $1,500 per year pay raise for K-12 teachers to $2,000 if the state’s Revenue Estimating Conference adopts an even rosier economic outlook next month.

Edwards said he expects that to happen, but the budget architects in the House are hesitant to commit to that.

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