Budget plan stirs emotions

BUDGET UNREST — A budget proposed by Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards has Louisiana teachers upset because the governor didn't include another pay increase. Edwards suggests local school boards could raise teacher pay.

Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards came up with a state budget proposal for the next fiscal year Friday that even some of his major supporters don’t like. Education is the big winner in the $32 billion spending plan, but public school teachers are upset it doesn’t include another pay raise they felt they were promised.

Leaders and members of the state’s education unions and associations have been supporters of Edwards since he first ran for governor, and they aren’t happy campers at the moment. However, other critical areas of education have to be happy with the additional funding they are receiving.

The governor is doing exactly what he did last year when he included spending money that hasn’t been forecast ($103 million) by the Revenue Estimating Conference. That plan eventually worked out when the money was recognized, and education was also a big winner then.

Childhood education is Edwards No. 1 priority and he budgeted an additional $25 million to go along with $20 million in last year’s budget. The new funds would trim a waiting list of about 4,000 children and their families needing help with education and child care while parents work or attend school.

Higher education would get a second annual increase, this one totaling $35 million. Colleges and universities took some deep budget cuts before Edwards took office, and it’s going to take a few years to get them back to where they need to be.

K-12 education got a $39 million increase in the Minimum Foundation Program (MFP) that funds public education, in addition to the $26.6 million required by law. Edwards is suggesting local school boards use half of that money to fund teacher pay increases.

Mike Faulk, executive director of the Louisiana Association of School Superintendents, told The Advocate that teachers can’t assume local school superintendents will back higher pay. Many of them say higher health care, retirement and other costs are eating up that money.

Louisiana teachers are paid an average of $50,359 annually, compared to $52,178, the average of the 16 states of the Southern Regional Education Board. The national average is $60,642.

Cynthia Posey, legislative and political director for the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, told the newspaper she “was taken aback by the lack of a pay hike.”

Jay Dardenne, state commissioner of administration and the governor’s budget chief, said, “The need to plus-up higher education, the MFP and early childhood soaked up most of the money that we were using as incentives. It was $100 million to do a $1,000 teacher pay raise last time. We just don’t have the money.”

Shane Riddle, legislative and political director for the superintendents association, was optimistic. He said more money might eventually become available that would make another teacher raise possible.

Dardenne also expressed a brighter outlook.

“I know that before this bill leaves committee they’re not going to want to pass a bill that cuts $103 million,” he said. “They would have to go in and make cuts. They didn’t want to do that last year, and I have a hard time seeing them want to do it this year.”

Maybe so, but this new more conservative Republican Legislature may have other ideas. House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, R-Gonzales, proposed a lower forecast and said Friday, “It was something I thought we could have a starting point on. I really feel like that would have been a better way to start this process.”

The budget Edwards has proposed represents a $285 million increase when compared to the current year’s budget, and that includes the $103 million. We can expect to hear the most conservative Republicans advocate cutting the budget rather than increasing spending.

Road and bridge work isn’t in the budget, but Dardenne said the governor plans to spend much of last year’s surplus on those projects.

Republican state Treasurer John Schroder is withholding $25 million in unclaimed property that is included in the $103 million that Edwards budgeted. The governor filed suit over the issue Friday, saying Schroder doesn’t have discretion to withhold an appropriation lawfully made by the Legislature.

While waiting for a court decision and other solutions, Edwards takes a common sense view of recent budgets, and his latest proposal doesn’t include any tax increases.

“Looking back over the last four years, we have come a long way since the days of billion-dollar deficits and fiscal cliffs,” the governor said. “This budget is a reflection of that financial stability and continued economic growth. As such, we are in a better position to invest in critical priorities than we have been in a long time.”

Dissension over the state budget is nothing new. It’s a fact of political life. However, everyone involved in state budgeting needs to take a breather and wait and see how the financial winds are blowing when the legislative session nears its end on June 1.

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