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Politics

Louisiana Legislature Finalizes Operating $38 Billion Budget For Upcoming Fiscal Year

 The Louisiana State Capitol. March 2021.
The Louisiana State Capitol. March 2021.

Louisiana State Lawmakers passed the $38 billion operating budget for the upcoming fiscal year Thursday, concluding their work on the bills a full two weeks before the end of the legislative session.

State spending bills are usually the last pieces to fall into place during a legislative session, but this year, with the state coffers flush with federal coronavirus relief dollars, the lawmakers finished all their backroom negotiations early.

“We had more resources this year. We all believe at the end of the day that we did the best we could with what we had,” Senate President Page Cortez (R-Lafayette) said Thursday, shortly after his chamber passed the budget.

The House of Representatives swiftly approved the Senate version a little more than two hours later.

This leaves state lawmakers with enough time before their mandated June 10th adjournment to override any potential line item vetoes issued by Gov. John Bel Edwards.

The budget includes big spending increases for higher education. The TOPS scholarship program is fully funded, Go Grants for low income college students were increased, and tens of millions of dollars were devoted to tuition aid for community college students.

Lots of public employees will get raises, including rank-and-file prison guards, state university faculty, judges, and juvenile justice workers.

K-12 teachers and support staff will receive annual pay hikes of $800 and $400 respectively. That’s less than the $1,000 dollars and $800 dollars legislative leaders were promising a few weeks ago but double what Gov. Edwards proposed at the start of session.

“We didn’t get there this year, but we got further than the governor thought we could,” Sen. Bodi White (R-Baton Rouge) said on the Senate floor.

Weeks earlier, he and other legislative leaders promised higher raises if more revenue materialized. And the state’s Revenue Estimating Conference adopted an economic forecast that projected tax collections would be $355 higher than expected in the current fiscal year and $320 million higher in the upcoming fiscal year than earlier estimates.

But instead of directing that money to the higher teacher pay raises, legislative leaders chose to pay $400 million to the federal government for levee improvements made in the New Orleans region in one lump sum, saving millions of dollars

Edwards proposed a $400 raise for teachers and $200 for school support staff at the start of the legislative session, when the state’s revenue picture was far less certain. The move prompted an immediate outcry from Edwards’ allies in teachers’ unions, and budget architects in the House of Representatives included larger raises in their first draft of the spending plan.

The Senate also laid out its plan to spend about half of the $3 billion the state will eventually receive through the Biden administration’s American Rescue Plan. State lawmakers will send $490 million to the state’s bankrupt unemployment insurance trust fund and $190 million toward repaying the federal government for loans the state took out starting in October to keep weekly unemployment benefits flowing.

An additional $563 million will go towards road and bridge projects — including the long-awaited widening of Interstates 10, 12 and 20. Another $300 million will go toward overhauling state water infrastructure.

The bill also includes money intended to buoy industries hit hard by the pandemic: more than $77.5 million to tourism marketing, $50 million for ports, $10 million for the tourism industry and $4.5 million for movie theaters.

Storm-ravaged Southwest Louisiana will receive $30 million — $14 million of which will go to the Port of Lake Charles and $4 million will go to McNeese State University.

But House members rejected a last minute amendment made to that bill by Sen. Cleo Fields (D-Baton Rouge) that would devote excess funds to remedy drainage issues at Southern University.

Lawmakers from both chambers will settle the disagreement in conference committee.

Copyright 2021 WRKF. To see more, visit WRKF.

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