By MELINDA DESLATTE
BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) – Flush with new cash in an election year, Louisiana lawmakers got generous, passing pay raises and boosted spending plans, but the full bill won’t come due until later years.
Despite improved revenue collections, the Legislature didn’t have enough money to cover all the items on its wish list. Rather than say no to officials and constituencies back home, lawmakers who ended their regular session Thursday backloaded some spending plans to hit after the new term begins in 2020.
“This is the first year we had a surplus in our budget, and it’s an election year. The combination of those factors, everybody realized it’s a great strategy to ask for more funding,” said Sen. Sharon Hewitt, a Slidell Republican who sits on the Senate Finance Committee.
The House and Senate boosted spending in next year’s budget on colleges, public school teachers, health services, foster care, senior citizen centers, public safety programs and the TOPS free college tuition program.
In addition to expectations they’ll continue that new funding annually, lawmakers also agreed to higher spending on sheriffs, parish district attorneys, health programs and more in the following years, when some legislators who locked the state into the plans won’t be in office to grapple with paying for them.
Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards said the items that lawmakers passed are “very, very small in comparison” to the overall $30 billion state operating budget – and to the hundreds of millions in tax breaks that House Republicans sought to enact, but that were killed by senators.
The spending plans that passed “are not bills that I have concern with. I will tell you that we saw an awful lot of discipline in the Legislature because the ones with the big fiscal notes did not make it all the way through,” the governor said.
Under a bill by Monroe Rep. Katrina Jackson, lawmakers boosted the dollars paid to local sheriffs per day for housing state inmates in parish jails. The change will cost $6.5 million in the upcoming budget year that begins July 1 and nearly doubles to $12.5 million a year later in the 2020-21 fiscal year.
“We’re demanding more from them in terms of education and training, more in terms of mental health and substance abuse treatment, and so you can’t really do that and then say, ‘Oh, by the way, we’re going to pay the same per diem we’ve been paying for the last 11 years,'” Edwards said.
That later budget year starting in 2020 is also when Louisiana will owe more to local district attorneys and assistant district attorneys, about $1.6 million for a boost to their state-financed salary supplements. That will grow to $3.3 million a year later.
Hewitt said she worries about future obligations. But she said lawmakers took a balanced approach in choosing which groups to assist.
“The sheriffs originally asked for twice as much as we gave them, and the district attorneys asked for twice as much as we gave them, so we did try to rein it in,” she said.
Legislators also agreed to expand Louisiana’s Medicaid program to include more children with developmental disabilities whose parents make too much money to qualify under current eligibility rules.
The legislation from Republican Rep. Dodie Horton, of Haughton, would start the program in the 2020-21 budget year, carrying an estimated $28 million price tag – about $9.3 million from the state – to cover about 1,600 more children.
In addition, a plan for five years of judges’ pay raises could eventually have the state footing the bill. The measure by Republican Sen. Danny Martiny, of Kenner, starts 2.5% raises for 372 judges with the new budget year. Louisiana’s Supreme Court justices agreed to cover the first year from an existing judicial surplus.
But additional 2.5% raises could happen each new budget year through 2023 if the judiciary determines it has money to pay for them – and lawmakers expect judges to come asking for that money in their annual budget. The cost of the raises, if funded each year, would grow to $3.7 million by 2020-21 and to $9.5 million by the 2023-24 budget year.
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