Policy Group: Edwards’ Spending Proposal a ‘Smart Start’ for Negotiations

BATON ROUGE (The Center Square) – Commentary from the Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana broke down Gov. John Bel Edwards’ proposed budget for 2022-23, describing it as a “smart start” for deliberations in the Legislature.

The Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana (PAR) outlined the governor’s proposal, highlighting several factors that align with the organization’s guiding principles.

Edwards proposed a $38.6 billion state operating budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1, as well as suggestions for $2.9 billion in one-time federal aid, surplus from last year and unbudgeted cash for this year.

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“The recommendations offer a strong starting point for legislative budget talks and follow several guiding principles from (PAR) for the largesse,” last week’s commentary read.

PAR noted, “Edwards wisely proposes using most of the short-term cash for one-time expenses, rather than growing government and creating future budget gaps.

“He suggests making key investments to help more students access early learning programs. He wants to pay off obligations that have lingered for years, lessening the debt burden for future governors and legislatures. And he’s seeking to move long-needed infrastructure improvements from the drawing board to reality.”

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The report points to $43 million in new funding to increase rates for early learning program providers, and $50 million left over from this year’s K-12 funding to match local dollars for early childhood education programs.

“The spending plan would add dollars in the critical area of education for children from birth through prekindergarten, a particular priority for PAR because research shows early childhood education is proven to improve health, life and employment outcomes,” researchers wrote.

Edwards also proposes $1,500 raises for teachers and $750 for support staff, which would cost about $148 million a year. The governor suggested spending another $111 million on higher education for faculty raises, mandated cost increases in health care and retirement, a youth obesity pilot program and offices that track federal Title IX compliance.

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Flat funding of $331 million would cover all eligible students in the TOPS college tuition program, and recent declines in college enrollment could leave some left over, PAR reports.

Edwards’ plan would spend more than $1 billion in one-time money on road and bridge projects including $500 million for a new bridge over the Mississippi River in Baton Rouge, $100 million to replace the I-10 bridge in Lake Charles and another $100 million for work on I-49 South. Other plans for the short term money would go to match federal cash available through the infrastructure law approved by Congress.

Additional infrastructure spending in the governor’s proposed budget would send $559 million to improve water and sewer systems, $150 million for coastal protection and $109 million for deferred maintenance at state buildings and colleges.

Edwards proposed $550 million to replenish the state’s unemployment trust fund, $450 million to pay off debts to the Federal Emergency Management Agency for storm recovery, $65 million for legal judgements against the state, and constitutionally mandated payments of $70 million toward retirement debt and $175 million to the state’s rainy day fund.

Lawmakers are holding budget hearings to vet the proposal ahead of the regular legislative session, which runs March 14 to June 6, and several issues loom large over the process.

“Republican and Democratic legislators have … questioned some of Edwards’ transportation plans, particularly the proposal to set aside so much money for a new Baton Rouge bridge when a route hasn’t been chosen and construction is years away,” according to the PAR report. “They’ve raised concerns about adding new, long-term expenses such as large teacher pay raises to the budget when the state will see its revenue drop after a temporary state sales tax falls off the books in mid-2025.”

PAR noted the governor’s budget could require a two-thirds vote in the Legislature to override constitutional caps on spending. Whether the federal government continues expanded federal Medicaid coronavirus aid is another unknown factor, though Edwards’ budget assumes it will end.

“As the Legislature begins to craft its version of the budget, PAR would like to see a continued focus on using short-term financing for one-time projects and needs, and approach that looks to the broader needs of the state rather than parochial projects and spending plans that focus on targeted goals and improved outcomes for Louisiana’s citizens,” the commentary read.

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