FILE - Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards

Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards

(The Center Square) – Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards has used his veto pen to grant $57 million in raises to state workers that the Louisiana Legislature voted to hold back.

While enough money was available to grant the scheduled raises, legislators argued giving state workers raises right now would send the wrong message when so many private sector workers are struggling or lost their jobs.

“What would be the perception?” Republican Finance Chairman Sen. Bodi White said.

Sen. Cameron Henry, a Metairie Republican, argued that given the current economic uncertainty, it makes more sense to hold back the money at least until the fall. Legislators likely will be in session again and might have a better idea of the state’s fiscal outlook.

But Edwards in a letter to legislative leaders said he vetoed the provision in the state budget bill to delay the scheduled “market rate adjustment” raises because the State Civil Service Commission has constitutional authority to regulate pay for classified employees. Eliminating the adjustments would harm “frontline personnel” dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, such as those engaged in public safety or public health, he added.

Even without legislative approval, the Civil Service Commission still could have granted the raises. If they did so, Edwards said, departments would have had to make cuts in other areas that could affect critical services.

He also vetoed $21 million in delayed appropriations to various executive branch departments. Much like the delayed pay raises, legislators said it made more sense to hold back spending those dollars until October when lawmakers might have a better idea of how the economy is recovering, rather than make cuts during the middle of the fiscal year.

A University of Louisiana at Lafayette study released in May found that tax collections could fall between $800 million and more than $1 billion over the next four quarters compared to pre-pandemic levels. Results in those ranges likely would necessitate midyear cuts unless the federal government provides more aid to states.

But Edwards said managing appropriations within the executive branch is under the governor’s constitutional authority, and said similar mandates were not imposed on the legislative or judicial branches. Edwards said he has directed executive branch agencies to reduce by 10 percent spending of their appropriated funds, in case tax and fee collections come in lower than the current official projection.

The governor also rejected a provision calling for the Louisiana Department of Health to check quarterly the eligibility of half of the state’s current Medicaid recipients, while also annually checking eligibility of half of everyone who enrolled during the previous year. The budget language called for using all available information including federal tax data, for which access is tightly regulated.

Edwards said the provision violates both federal regulations and the state constitution’s ban on making substantive policy changes in an appropriations bill, adding that the change would cost $42 million that the bill does not appropriate.

Edwards' administration has been criticized by lawmakers and others over waste and fraud in the state's Medicaid program since he expanded it under the Affordable Care Act shortly after taking office. Critics have been calling for better accountability to make sure those receiving benefits are eligible.

Edwards also vetoed a budget line item calling for $2 million in new money for the State Fire Marshall’s office for acquisitions and major repairs. He said the office did not request the money, adding that he wasn’t authorizing new acquisitions for any executive agency.

He vetoed $7 million in aid for state governments that he said appear to give the state treasurer “vast discretion” to decide where to spend “a wholly new appropriation.” The money should be available for legislators to spend later in a supplemental bill, he said.

Staff Reporter

David Jacobs is a Baton Rouge-based award-winning journalist who has written about government, politics, business and culture in Louisiana for almost 15 years. He joined The Center Square in 2018.