Edwards Presents Proposed Budget to Lawmakers

BATON ROUGE (AP) — With $2.2 billion in extra state revenue forecasted for Louisiana’s upcoming budget, Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards wants to use a portion of those funds for teacher pay raises, pour hundreds of millions of dollars into additional spending for transportation projects and focus on funding education at all grade levels.

Edwards, who is unable to run for governor this year due to term limits, put forth his final proposed state budget to a joint legislative committee Friday morning. The $45.7 billion spending plan for 2023-24, which lacks significant cuts, is slightly less than the current operating budget of $46.1 billion.

While members of the Republican-dominated Legislature got their first formal look at the spending plan this week, discussions will continue and lawmakers will craft a final version of next year’s budget during the legislative session that begins April 10.

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“It is remarkable how far we’ve come together since the early years after I took office, and I think this budget is a reflection of that,” Edwards, who has been governor since 2016, said to lawmakers. “(The budget) is focused on the people of Louisiana and the investments that we can make to continue to improve countless lives throughout the state. It’s a budget that I am proud to present and one that I strongly encourage you to work to adopt.”

Among the additional costs, Edwards is looking to close disaster-related debt owed to the federal government by allocating $100 million in FEMA repayments for cost-share obligations from hurricane damage. Also on his proposal is $84 million for acquisitions and major repairs to state buildings — with a significant chunk for the state’s ailing prison system — $10 million for a new voting system to replace the current outdated one and $340 million for the state’s transportation department to match federal funding and infrastructure grants,

“When you look at this budget, these are investments. … We are making long-term investments in the state,” said Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne, Edwards’ chief budget architect.

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In Edwards’ end-of-year speech in December, he stressed a focus on education in 2023. The governor’s proposed budget would send an additional $100 million to higher education initiative funds — including spending on various programs, such as nursing and cybersecurity, and nearly $9 million for K-12 school safety initiatives. In the spending plan, nearly $52 million would be used to offset the expiring $200 million of federal pandemic relief funds used to provide early learning access.

In addition, millions would be allocated to accommodate a $2,000 salary increase for K-12 teachers and $1,000 salary increase for support workers, who include teacher aides, bus drivers, cafeteria workers and other staffers. The money would help get teachers in Louisiana to the Southern average in teacher salaries, Dardenne said.

The proposed teacher pay raise could grow an additional $1,000, Dardenne said, if the state’s forecast of experiencing higher-than-expected revenue collections by May is accurate.

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“Every year we talk about how we wish we could give (teachers) more and that they deserve more, and they absolutely do. I think this year we need to make sure that our budget reflects that,” Edwards said.

Louisiana’s sunny extra-fund forecast comes from an end-of-fiscal-year surplus of $726.5 million, $928 million in excess funds from a higher-than-expected revenue collections in the current budget year and the $605 million the state anticipates receiving from unprojected revenue. However, how that money is allocated does come with some conditions.

The estimated $726.5 million in surplus funds, which will be finalized later this year, can’t be used to pay for ongoing state expenses. Under the Louisiana Constitution, 25% must flow to the state’s “rainy day” fund, which will be the highest it has ever been at $903 million. In addition, 10% must pay down retirement debt. Dardenne said the remaining funds will likely be split evenly — about $160,000 each — between three items: coastal protection and restoration work, construction projects and building maintenance.

Ahead of budget discussions, some one-time funding has already been allocated. Last month, $45 million in the excess funds was put toward an insurer incentive program in the hopes of attracting more companies that write homeowners’ policies to the state. Louisiana, like Florida, is in the midst of an insurance crisis, with residents paying exorbitant premiums.

In the coming weeks, legislative budget committees in the House and Senate will hold hearings on Edwards’ proposed spending plan.

By AP reporter Sara Cline

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