By MELINDA DESLATTE
BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) – The wish lists at the Louisiana Capitol are long and pricey, as the state climbs out of years of budget gaps into a place of increased revenue. And with the election year, lawmakers are looking for ways to use the newfound cash to help their politicking.
Lawmakers are pushing tax breaks that could play well back home and pay hikes for municipal police officers and firefighters. They’re seeking spending boosts to councils on aging and sheriffs, and increased money for local health care providers. They want roadwork, bridge improvements, and economic development projects to show voters.
In addition, legislators want to steer more dollars to education programs that help children anywhere from birth through college, after nearly a decade of flat or reduced state financing for early childhood, K-12 public school and higher education programs.
Sufficient to say, there’s never enough money to cover all the requests. But for the first time in years, lawmakers have extra dollars on hand, instead of fights over budget cuts.
Three different pots of unbudgeted money are available after the state income forecasting panel boosted its projections last month: a $308 million surplus from the budget year that ended June 30, $110 million in unallocated money for the current year, and $119 million to add to the $30 billion spending plan for the financial year that begins July 1. The surplus is the only pot of money that faces constitutional limits on how it can be spent.
The first inkling of how lawmakers in the House, particularly the Republican leadership, want to use the dollars will come Monday, when the Appropriations Committee votes on a package of budget bills. The full House’s debate on the spending plans is scheduled Thursday.
One thing that seems certain is that K-12 public school teachers and school support workers, such as custodians and teaching aides, will receive pay raises. That was included in next year’s budget proposal when it was filed, without having to compete for the additional, new dollars available to lawmakers.
Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, sought the $1,000 salary boost for teachers and $500 pay hike for support staff. Republican and Democratic lawmakers alike back the $101 million in raises for next year.
But Edwards and House Republicans are at odds over a separate $39 million block grant increase the governor proposed to add into the $3.8 billion financing formula for public school districts. House GOP lawmakers question whether Louisiana can afford the increase, and they seem more interested in adding new dollars to early learning programs for children from birth through pre-kindergarten. Edwards and education officials say the pay raises drive up other school district costs, such as retirement, so the additional dollars are needed.
What other education spending requests may be favored remain unclear.
Louisiana’s sheriffs want to boost the amount they receive for housing state inmates in local jails, a proposal that would cost nearly $21 million next year. The state’s judges are seeking a new round of pay raises, which would cost the state $1.8 million-plus more annually.
Lake Charles Republican Sen. Ronnie Johns wants to increase state spending on parish councils on aging, costing an extra $1.2 million next year and growing to nearly $4 million by the third year of the phase-in.
House lawmakers filed bills to widen eligibility for a state supplement given to local law enforcement officers and firefighters. Albany Republican Rep. Sherman Mack proposes to increase that supplemental payment from the current $500 level per month to $750 – legislation that carries a whopping $60 million annual price tag.
Several legislators want to steer millions of dollars away from general government operations to pay for transportation projects, as the state faces a $14 billion backlog of road and bridge work needs.
Early childhood education advocates are seeking $86 million annually to help children from birth to 3 years old with early learning assistance.
An array of proposals to expand existing tax breaks, create new ones or reinstate suspended tax credits and exemptions are under consideration – after it took lawmakers three years and 10 legislative sessions to compromise on a tax deal to stabilize Louisiana’s finances.
This year’s regular legislative session must end by June 6.
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