Louisiana governor signs $30B budget; touts teacher raises

Politics
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BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) – Saying “a great education cures a lot of ills,” Gov. John Bel Edwards on Tuesday signed Louisiana’s $30 billion operating budget at a Baton Rouge elementary school where he hailed the first statewide public school teacher raise in a decade.

The 2019-20 budget starting July 1 contains increases for public elementary and secondary schools, colleges and universities, early learning programs, health care services and public safety programs.

The Democratic governor, running for reelection with education union support, promoted the spending plans in a school gym with an audience of schoolchildren, lawmakers and advocates.

SPENDING INCREASES

Public school teachers, school librarians and other certificated personnel are getting $1,000 salary hikes. School support workers, such as cafeteria staff, are getting $500 raises. School districts are getting more discretionary money.

Legislative approval of the K-12 spending hike overcame initial opposition from House Republican leaders and marked Edwards’ biggest achievement of the legislative session that ended two weeks ago.

“This is the best budget for education in Louisiana in well over a decade, and that’s what we need in Louisiana,” Edwards said. “That’s what inspires confidence in employers to invest in Louisiana. That’s what gives opportunity and prosperity to people.”

Also in the upcoming budget year, the foster care program is expanding to cover more youth up to age 21. Colleges are getting more money to cover rising health insurance and retirement costs. Senior citizen centers are getting increases.

The juvenile justice agency will have new dollars to expand services as more youth offenders shift from the adult corrections system to juvenile programs. The Office of Motor Vehicles will have more money, aimed at using technology to cut down wait times.

Providers of home- and community-based services for Medicaid patients who are elderly or have developmental disabilities are getting rate increases.

FEWER DISPUTES

The governor and majority-Republican Legislature had a lighter budget debate this year, after agreeing in 2018 on a seven-year tax deal that stabilized Louisiana’s finances and ended years of budget gaps.

In the latest legislative session, lawmakers and Edwards haggled over how to spend new money, rather than where to make cuts. The largest disagreement centered on how much of an increase to give public schools and how to divvy it up.

As if to indicate the lack of arguments, Edwards didn’t strip a single thing from the budget bill with his line-item veto. Still, he said Louisiana will take years to make up for the ground lost in education with years of stagnant financing or cuts in programs.

“The train is no longer in the ditch,” he said. “It’s back on the tracks.”

SURPLUS DOLLARS

Beyond the upcoming budget, lawmakers allocated more than $400 million in unspent cash from Louisiana’s better-than-expected tax collections for last year and the current financial year to pay for a long list of construction work and one-time projects.

Dollars will go to roadwork, coastal protection and public college programs. Debts will be paid down, along with legal judgments owed by the state. Computer upgrades for state agencies will continue. The fire marshal’s office will get money to cover overtime expenses for investigating the burnings of three black churches in St. Landry Parish. Other money is being steered to a state savings account. And lawmakers’ favored projects will get construction money.

Edwards didn’t sign those budget plans Tuesday, as the legislation still is under review for possible line-item vetoes.

OVERALL BUDGET PICTURE

Combined with the legislative agency, judicial expense and construction spending bills, Louisiana’s total budget will near $35 billion in the 2019-20 financial year.

That’s a $730 million increase, about a 2% spending growth, largely tied to boosted federal dollars and fees or other self-generated revenue sources for agencies. State spending from general tax collections is growing 1%, about $100 million, according to a House budget analysis.

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