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Louisiana governor seeks millions in new education spending

February 7, 2020 GMT
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Lawmakers on the Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget follow along with the presentation of Gov. John Bel Edwards' budget proposal for next year, on Friday, Feb. 7, 2020, in Baton Rouge, La. (AP Photo/Melinda Deslatte)
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Lawmakers on the Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget follow along with the presentation of Gov. John Bel Edwards' budget proposal for next year, on Friday, Feb. 7, 2020, in Baton Rouge, La. (AP Photo/Melinda Deslatte)

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Gov. John Bel Edwards’ administration Friday proposed a $32 billion Louisiana budget for next year that pours millions of new dollars into education and keeps most other government programs on an even keel, using money that isn’t yet available to spend under the law.

The Democratic governor prioritized education as he campaigned last year for reelection to his second term. Although one of his education talking points centered on the need to raise teacher pay to the Southern average, Edwards didn’t include specific dollars for the salary hikes in his spending recommendations for the 2020-21 financial year beginning July 1.

Release of the budget proposal kicks off months of financial negotiations with the majority-Republican Legislature. Lawmakers likely won’t finish crafting next year’s spending plan until near the end of the three-month regular legislative session that begins March 9.

“This is the starting point,” Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne, the governor’s chief budget adviser, told the Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget. “This is the beginning of what will be a very long process.”

Among the $285 million in proposed boosted spending, nearly half would finance increases across education programs. Those increases would come on top of new investments in education the governor and lawmakers made this year.

Edwards recommends steering more than $65 million of the new cash to the K-12 financing formula for public schools, $25 million for early learning programs for children from birth to 3 years old and $35 million for public colleges. Spending on the TOPS college tuition program would grow to cover all eligible students.

But Edwards’ budget proposal doesn’t explicitly include another pay raise for public school teachers who received one this year. When asked about the absence, Dardenne said some of the increased dollars proposed for the K-12 financing formula could be used for pay hikes.

“It would be left to the local school districts to decide,” he said.

Other new dollars would pay for Louisiana’s juvenile lock-up facilities to house more teenagers, to account for a law change raising the age of adult prosecution, and would finance required civil service pay raises for rank-and-file state workers. Political appointees in the governor’s Cabinet would be in line for salary hikes as well.

The proposal includes $23 million to cover spending that lawmakers approved last year: pay raises for judges and parish district attorneys; increased payments to sheriffs for housing state inmates in parish jails; and a Medicaid expansion to cover more children with developmental disabilities.

With years of fights over budget cuts behind them, the response from lawmakers Friday was muted. Republican Rep. Larry Bagley of Stonewall said he wants a larger increase in a need-based aid program for college students. Senate President Page Cortez, a Lafayette Republican, wanted to see more spending on transportation.

“Infrastructure doesn’t seem to be on this radar,” said a disappointed Republican Sen. Heather Cloud of Turkey Creek.

Dardenne said the governor will propose spending a significant slice of the last year’s surplus cash on roadwork, bridge repairs and rural water system upgrades.

“Stay tuned, because there’s going to be a lot of discussion,” Dardenne told Cloud.

Edwards’ spending proposal is a wish list of sorts. The governor used income projections that aren’t included in Louisiana’s official forecast because the Legislature’s new Republican leaders wouldn’t adopt them. That includes billions of dollars agencies expect to receive from fees, fines and other revenue sources, along with a $103 million increase in tax collections economists anticipate will arrive in the treasury.

Cortez and House Speaker Clay Schexnayder refused to support the projections, wanting only a tiny increase for next year’s forecast instead of the $103 million. The disagreement stalled forecast changes. Both GOP legislative leaders defended their approach.

“I really feel that that would have been a better way to start this process,” Schexnayder said.

Still, the House speaker and Cortez struck a compromising tone with Dardenne.

“I feel like we will get to a number,” Cortez said.

The governor’s recommendations also would spend $25 million that Republican state Treasurer John Schroder has said he won’t transfer for general operating expenses. Edwards sued Schroder over the money Friday, asking a judge to declare the treasurer’s actions illegal.

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Follow Melinda Deslatte on Twitter at http://twitter.com/melindadeslatte