Revenue forecast clash complicates Louisiana teacher pay raise effort

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BATON ROUGE, LA – Gov. John Bel Edwards’ push to raise teacher salaries this year has met a familiar hurdle, as a leading House Republican has questioned the accuracy of a rosier income outlook for a third straight month.

House Speaker Taylor Barras blocked the Revenue Estimating Conference from recognizing roughly $130 million in projected surplus funds Thursday. His opposition to the estimate — largely unchanged since November — countered the views of state economists.

“There’s a great deal of uncertainty,” he said, citing the results of falling oil prices and federal tax changes. “There is a lot of noise in these numbers.”

Barras was the lone member of the four-person income forecasting panel to reject the calculation Thursday. He issued similar reservations last month. In November, Rep. Cameron Henry (R-Metairie) sat in for the speaker and also opposed the adoption.

The REC’s other three members — Senate President John Alario (R-Westwego), LSU economist Jim Richardson and Edwards‘ budget chief Jay Dardenne — have supported recognizing the improved figures, though the panel’s decisions must be unanimous.

The speaker’s “no” vote muddies a top priority for Edwards, who presents next year’s executive budget in February. Failure to adopt the higher forecast by then would mean the governor could not issue raises without slicing funds elsewhere, since he can only include revenue approved by the conference.

“It particularly creates uncertainty for teachers in the state who would be expecting a pay raise funded in the budget when we know there’s more money available,” Dardenne said.

Louisiana teachers currently average $49,800 a year, more than $2,000 below the regional average.

Under Edwards’ plan, public teachers would earn another $1,000 annually. School bus drivers, cafeteria workers, custodians and other support staff would get another $500.

Barras, whose wife is a retired teacher, prefers waiting a few months to see whether the economists’ rosier figures hold up. He agrees that a surplus of some size is likely.

“I would certainly support giving anything we can for teachers,” the speaker said. “But setting up the expectation that there is a raise is a little premature until we know how we’re paying for it.”

Lawmakers can still fund teacher pay raises on their own through legislation this spring, though Dardenne argued that waiting any longer would subject good policy to politics.

“We’re just playing a game right now by not recognizing the reality that we face,” he said. “It defies logic.”

REC members plan to meet again in February, despite their hints that a fourth stalemate is likely.

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