Teacher raises and $1B for infrastructure: Gov. Edwards rolls out executive budget plan
Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards rolled out an executive budget proposal for the upcoming fiscal year that features significant new investments in education and infrastructure projects.
The state of Louisiana is awash with excess coronavirus relief dollars from the federal government and higher than expected tax collections for the previous and current fiscal years.
“I think we have a once in a generation opportunity, maybe a once in a lifetime opportunity in some respects, to move our state forward,” said Edwards at a Monday afternoon press briefing in Baton Rouge.
The budget proposal will be formally presented to state lawmakers on Tuesday by Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne. The presentation officially kicks off months of negotiations and debate over state spending priorities for the upcoming fiscal year.
The state’s Republican legislative leaders are sure to put their own mark on the state budget in the coming months, but this presentation for Edwards sets a benchmark for those discussions.
The centerpiece of Edwards’ spending plan focuses on increasing teacher pay at nearly every level, including a proposed $1,500 increase to K-12 teacher salaries and a $700 increase for school support staff. The pay hike, which comes with a total price tag of $148 million, will be funded by recurring revenue and is part of Edwards’ multi-year push to bring Louisiana teachers’ salaries in line with the southern regional average. The state currently trails that mark by $3,639 per year. In the last budget cycle, Edwards and lawmakers agreed to give an $800 salary bump for K-12 teachers and a $400 bump for school support staff.
“For decades, Louisiana has been on the top of too many bad lists and on the bottom of too many good lists — how do we get off the bottom of those lists?” Edwards said. “It’s always overly simplistic to say one thing can do it, but the single most important thing is education.”
Edwards called on lawmakers to further increase the salary bump to $2,000 if the state’s revenue outlook improves further. If the state’s revenue estimating conference adopts an even rosier economic forecast in May, Edwards is asking the legislature to devote the first $49 million in additional revenue to the even higher pay raises for teachers.
“If ever there was a time to invest in education, it is now,” Edwards said. “We know how significantly the pandemic has adversely affected education at all levels, we know the burden that’s been placed on our teachers and support staff, so I think we owe it to them.”
Edwards also proposed a $128.9 million increase in higher education spending. That figure includes $31.7 million for faculty pay raises at the state’s colleges and universities, a $15 million increase to the GO Grant program for low-income college students, $10.5 in financial aid for non-tradition students at technical and community colleges, and full funding for the TOPS scholarship program. The plan also includes a $5 million increase in funding for the Title IX offices across the state.
The plan also includes a $43 million increase in funding for early childhood education.
The plan boasts $1.1 billion in spending on state infrastructure projects, including $500 million for the long-awaited third Mississippi River bridge in Baton Rouge, $100 million for the Interstate 10 Bridge over the Calcasieu River in Lake Charles, and $100 million for the Interstate 49 Lafayette Connector.
The price tag for a new Mississippi River bridge in Baton Rouge is estimated to be well over $1 billion. The $500 million that Edwards intends to spend on the project would come from the expected excess revenue for the current fiscal year and would immediately go into a fund that would cover pre-development costs for the project. Edwards said the remaining cost of the project would likely be covered by a public-private partnership.
“This will let the private sector know how serious we are about this bridge,” Edwards said. “And it allows the federal government, the U.S. Department of Transportation, to know how significant this project is to us and how serious we are with the funding committed to it, which makes us more likely to win discretionary grants and additional funding moving forward.”
The recently formed Capital Area Road and Bridge District has held meetings for months to discuss the potential location of the proposed bridge but those talks failed to gain traction with the project’s funding source uncertain.
The plan would also direct $500 million to upgrade the state’s crumbling water and sewer systems. The state legislature allocated $300 million in coronavirus relief dollars for that purpose last year and allowed local governments to apply for funding. The state received funding requests for more than 600 projects with a total price tag of $1.1 billion.
The proposed state investments would come on top of the $3 billion in federal infrastructure investments announced in recent weeks, including $206 million to be spent on bridge improvements in mostly rural communities this year.
Edwards also proposes spending $150 million in surplus dollars to the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority to fund projects that had already been approved in the state’s coastal master plan.
Social Safety Net
Edwards also directed $550 million of the state’s remaining American Rescue Plan dollars to the state’s Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund, which was severely depleted in the first year of the pandemic. Edwards said he intends to raise the balance of the fund above $750 million. State law hits employers with automatic payroll tax increases if the fund dips below that amount.
The proposed spending plan increases the Medicaid reimbursement rate for in-home healthcare workers who work with people with disabilities. Those workers are currently paid between $13 and $14 per hour depending on the work they do, but Edwards proposes raising those rates to $18.50 per hour.