May 21, 2022

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Louisiana House panel advances budget; debate set Thursday

3 min read

Still up in the air as the $38 billion state operating budget and related budget bills was the future of a new Mississippi River bridge at Baton Rouge.

BATON ROUGE, La. — A Louisiana House panel advanced a proposed state operating budget Monday that includes $148 million for pay raises for teachers and school support staff and $104 million for increases for higher education, but strips a proposed $100-per-month increase in state supplemental pay for local police and firefighters.

Still up in the air as the $38 billion state operating budget and related budget bills left the House Appropriations Committee on Monday was the future of Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards’ proposal to allocate $500 million in one-time revenue toward a new Mississippi River bridge at Baton Rouge, a project one administration official said could eventually cost roughly $2.5 billion.

The initial bridge funding, the school pay raises and $100 million in higher education funding — including more than $31 million for faculty pay increases — were among priorities Edwards laid out in his annual budget proposal earlier this year.

The proposals were made as lawmakers, after facing years of tight budgets, prepared to debate how best to spend higher tax revenues and an influx of more than $2.8 billion in one-time revenue — $1.4 billion from federal pandemic aid, $700 million of surplus from the 2021 fiscal year and $853 million higher-than-planned revenue for the current year.

As the committee prepared to move the budget legislation to the full House for a planned Thursday debate, chairman Jerome Zeringue, a Houma Republican, touted the education raises along with increased funding for early childhood education initiatives, clean water programs, and a $500 million allocation to refurbish the state unemployment trust fund. That allocation, backers said, will prevent Louisiana businesses from facing a jump in unemployment insurance costs to replenish a fund that was drained when the coronavirus pandemic led to major job losses.

But the committee approved an amendment stripping the increase in supplemental pay for parish and municipal police and firefighters. Rep. Jack McFarland, a Jonesboro Republican, said the proposed increase, along with other legislation that could add more local level emergency workers to those already getting supplemental pay, could eventually put financial strains on the state.

“Granted they’re worth more than what we’re providing,” said Zeringue. “But this is a recurring expense and we need to look at trying to engage and involve local governments as well to support their local fire and police.”

Rep. Dustin Miller, a Democrat from Opelousas, expressed hope that the supplemental pay increase might be restored to the budget after a state panel, the Revenue Estimating Conference, meets to make its official revenue projection, which could mean more money coming in.

As for the bridge, Republican legislative leaders have been slow to back Edwards’ proposal, saying the money could sit for years without being used while plans for the bridge take shape. Zeringue said Monday that House and Senate leaders are discussing the issue. Meanwhile, among the legislation the panel advanced Monday was a proposal to create a “Revitalizing and Developing Infrastructure in All of Louisiana” fund. Zeringue described the RADIAL fund as a place to “park” the non-recurring revenue Edwards wants to use for the bridge while discussions are underway.

Edwards’ top financial official, Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne, repeated the administration’s contention that the money needs to be dedicated to the bridge now. He said site recommendations for the bridge are expected in the coming months. He said committing $500 million to the project would help the state seek competitive grants.

“I like the concept of the RADIAL fund, I just hope that the Mississippi River bridge is not a spare tire,” said Dardenne.

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