Louisiana lawmakers approved a $34 billion-plus budget on Thursday, adopting a new spending plan for state government with minutes to spare before the session’s 6 p.m. deadline.
The budget calls for spending about $1 billion more than the current year’s, said House Appropriations Chairman Cameron Henry, with federal dollars making up most of the increase. State general fund spending, which is the part of the budget over which legislators have the most control, will increase by about 1 percent to approximately $9.7 billion.
The final day got off to a slow start as heavy rain and flooding delayed many legislators’ arrival at the State Capitol. But lawmakers finished their work in time to complete one of the more amicable sessions in recent memory.
In contrast to recent arguments about closing deficits and avoiding a “fiscal cliff,” this year’s debates focused on how to spend an additional $110 million in recognized revenue for the current year, an extra $119 million for the fiscal year that begins July 1, and a $308 million surplus.
Lawmakers voted to spend more money for early child care and education, higher education, infrastructure and health care. Measures that could have led to tax cuts, income tax changes, adjustments to industrial tax breaks, or spending restrictions didn’t make it through the legislative process.
The most contentious fiscal debate was over K-12 education spending. Gov. John Bel Edwards announced before the session that raises for teachers and school support personnel were his top legislative priority.
Edwards proposed a $1,000 raise for teachers and other certified educators along with a $500 raise for support workers like bus drivers and janitors, part of a multiyear process to try to lift Louisiana teacher pay to the regional average. He also called for a 1.375 percent increase in state block grants to districts.
The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education unanimously endorsed Edwards’ proposal, which represents the first state-funded teacher raise and the second per-pupil funding increase in a decade. Combined, the increases are expected to cost about $140 million.
Republicans quickly agreed to teacher raises, even proposing an extra $20 million for slightly larger raises. But House Republican leaders initially balked at the block-grant increase, saying they weren’t sure the state could afford it and expressing doubt the money would be spent wisely.
The House Education Committee asked BESE to reconsider its request, but the state board held firm and the Senate overwhelmingly endorsed their position. House Republicans relented, removing the last major obstacle to a budget deal.
Beyond the celebrated teacher raises, this year’s budget debate was perhaps less memorable for how lawmakers spent the money than for how they decided how much they had to spend. The Revenue Estimating Conference usually finalizes before Jan. 1 its official forecast for the upcoming fiscal year, which the governor uses to create the executive budget that becomes House Bill 1.
This year, Republican leaders refused to recognize a new estimate until the session had already started in April. Democrats accused them of injecting politics into what is supposed to be a non-political process, though House Speaker Taylor Barras said he thought an estimate made later in the year would be more accurate.
The result was a session that started with dueling state budgets, though the legislature’s Republican majority quickly coalesced around the one contained in Rep. Henry’s House Bill 105.
Perhaps the most significant non-budget spending bill of the session didn’t include tax dollars. House Bill 578 redirects $700 million in expected revenue from the state’s Deepwater Horizon litigation settlement to road and bridge projects, including some that have been delayed for decades. Lawmakers said the measure could allow the state to acquire well over $1 billion in federal and local matching funds.
With the two-month session over, election season kicks into high gear. Every state elected office is up for grabs this fall. Term limits will cause significant turnover in the Legislature, although many members likely will move from one legislative body to the other.