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State Senate leadership present their budget priorities, devote $300M to Baton Rouge bridge

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Kezia Setyawan
/
WWNO
Louisiana State Capitol. April 5, 2022.

Members of the state’s Senate Finance Committee worked over the weekend to advance the state’s nearly $40 billion operating budget for the upcoming fiscal year.

Capitol Access reporter Paul Braun joined WWNO Host Karl Lengel to discuss the latest version of the state spending plans. Parts of their conversation that were edited from the radio version are included in the transcript below.

Karl Lengel: Paul, a lot has been made of the plans to fund infrastructure “megaprojects” with all of the one-time money up for grabs. How did those fare in this latest version of the budget?

Paul Braun: Well, Karl, if this is the final version of the budget, then the new Mississippi River bridge in Baton Rouge would get $300 million. That’s not as much as Gov. John Bel Edwards asked for. He included $500 million in his budget proposal, which kicked off this whole budget cycle back in January. The House passed a budget with $400 million in road and bridge funding up for grabs. All of it could have gone to the Baton Rouge project, but that was unlikely. Lawmakers were expected to spend a lot less on it. Instead, the Senate Finance committee committed $300 million to that project.

They won assurances from the Edwards administration that a significant portion of that money would be put to use quickly, particularly for improvements to Highway 30, which will connect the new bridge to I-10 eventually and just so happens to run through House Speaker Clay Schexnayder’s (R-Gonzales) district.

Lawmakers also decided to send $200 million to a new I-10 bridge in Lake Charles – doubling the amount Edwards proposed for that project.

There is another $200 million going to connect I-49 south of Lafayette to New Orleans. And $150 million is being set aside for preservation projects on much smaller roads and bridges. That’s a nod to lawmakers from rural parishes who felt they were being left out of infrastructure investment discussion.

KL: What about teacher pay raises?

PB: The Senate opted to keep pay raises at $1,500 for K-12 teachers and $750 for school support staff. That’s the same amount as Edwards had in his budget proposal, but from the get-go, Edwards said he would like for lawmakers to increase those pay raises to $2,000 per year if the state’s Revenue Estimating Conference, or REC, adopted an even more optimistic revenue forecast. The REC did that last week, but the version of the budget that came out of Senate Finance kept those raises flat at $1,500.

Sen. President Page Cortez (R-Lafayette) said he wants to see local governments spend more on teacher pay, instead of having the state bear most of that burden.

That, of course, puts lower-income school districts and areas with lower property taxes at a disadvantage. The across-the-board increases from the state were seen as a subtle way of leveling the playing field. Putting the onus on local governments to increase teacher salaries just deepens those inequities.

The legislature has provided $3,300 in pay raises over the past four years, which is not enough to keep pace with other states’ salary increases and falls well short of the gains needed to bring the state in line with the average of the 16 states that are part of the Southern Regional Education Board. Louisiana is currently 12th.

But that was Edwards’ campaign promise, not a promise from the House and Senate leaders at the center of the budget process.

KL: How about the proposed pay raises for higher education faculty?

PB: Those did not fare as well. The Senate Finance committee scaled back the faculty pay raises at Louisiana colleges and universities. Last month, the budget that cleared the House included 5% raises for those faculty members. The Senate Finance version cut those down to 3%.

KL: What’s the next step for these spending bills?

PB: The next stop is the Senate floor. State Senators are racing to get the budget passed and to work out any final compromises with the House by the end of business Friday. If they do that, Edwards will have to issue any line-item vetoes while lawmakers are still in session, which could let them attempt more veto overrides. That’s never been a part of the budget process before and is something to keep an eye on.