BY: JULIE O'DONOGHUE Louisiana Illuminator
Gov. John Bel Edwards wants to put a portion of Louisiana’s $2.2 billion in better-than-expected revenue toward K-12 teacher and higher education faculty pay raises that would take effect July 1. The governor is also proposing to use the extra money for transportation projects, higher education initiatives, paying off disaster-related federal debt and state building projects.
Edwards unveiled his spending proposal Friday for the 2023-2024 budget cycle. Legislators will weigh in with their financial priorities over the next several months, with the two parties expected to settle on a compromise budget plan by the end of June.
Since he took office in 2015, the governor has promised to prioritize K-12 teachers salaries. This year, Edwards proposes increasing teacher pay by at least $2,000 annually and school support staff pay by $1,000 a year. The governor has also said if the state is still experiencing higher-than-expected revenue collections by May, the teacher pay increase should be bumped up to $3,000.
Teachers have seen several modest increases in pay during Edwards’ seven years as governor, though their total pay bump has only amounted to $3,300. Another $3,000 increase would nearly double their total pay increase during Edwards’ two terms in office.
Outside of pay increases, Edwards is also proposing an ongoing increase in higher education’s general funding of $28 million, a hike for LSU’s medical school in Shreveport ($12 million) and the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge ($2 million). He also wants to put more ongoing money into the state scholarship program for low-income college students called GO Grants ($15 million).
On top of that spending, the governor wants to allocate a one-time $100 million infusion of cash into higher education. This money would go toward nursing programs, community college training for “high demand” jobs and university campus security needs.
The governor is also pushing a permanent increase in pay for local law enforcement and first responders, costing the state $23.4 million. Last year, Edwards and lawmakers agreed to give police and first responders a one-time pay bump of $1,200. This would make that pay hike – likely doled out in $100 monthly increments – perpetual.
Edwards has also proposed putting more money into early childhood education programs ($51.7 million), cyber attack prevention ($53.2 million), a new voting system ($10 million), K-12 school safety initiatives ($9 million), and special education classroom camera maintenance ($800,000).
Louisiana’s $2.2 billion in extra money to spend comes from three different pots. Approximately $725 million is surplus funding unused in the previous budget cycle, which closed out last June. An additional $928 million comes from higher-than-expected revenue collections in the current budget year. The state anticipates receiving the remaining $605 million in unprojected revenue next year.
The governor also wants to settle disaster-related debt owed to the federal government with the extra money. He proposed putting $100 million toward closing out bills with the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Under the governor’s plan, another $20.5 million from the state’s new money will be used to help close out the Road Home program that was setup to help homeowners with significant damages from Hurricane Katrina. Approximately $36 million would be used to settle emergency shelter expenses related to Hurricane Ida.
Edwards has also proposed setting aside $84 million in funding for state building repair and major purchases. Most of this money will go toward fixing up the prison system, which has several facilities with structural repair needs. Some of the money will also be used to purchase vehicles for the Department of Children and Family Services and to build security towers at juvenile justice facilities.
Legislators face restrictions on some of that extra funding, particularly the $725 million surplus from last year. By law, the money can only be used for certain state government functions, including paying down retirement debt, coast restoration and increasing the state’s reserve account – often called the “rainy day fund” – that will help prop up state government during future economic downturns.
The governor and lawmakers also agree that a large chunk of the additional funding should be voluntarily used to deal with one-time projects instead of recurring state expenses. If elected officials build too much more ongoing spending into the state’s financial plan, they put Louisiana at risk of having bigger budget problems when the state’s economy falters.
In that vein, Edwards has proposed using a large amount of the additional revenue, $340 million, for transportation projects. Approximately $140 million of that funding is expected to be used as a matching resource to attract more federal transportation dollars. About $195 million would be used to cover existing project cost overruns.
The governor also hopes it would help Louisiana surpass the southern states’ regional average for teacher pay, which is just over $55,000. Louisiana’s current average is $53,000.