Gov. John Bel Edwards debuted a $32 billion state budget proposal Friday, but ongoing disputes between the administration and Republican lawmakers over how much money the state has to spend looms large over the start of this year’s negotiations.
Edward’s top budget advisor presented the governor’s spending recommendations for the 2020-21 fiscal year to the Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget Friday. The Democratic governor’s proposal sets the stage for what will be the central policy debate of the legislative session that begins March 9.
“This is the starting point,” Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne said.
Those recommendations include $285 million in new spending focused primarily on education. The proposed budget would direct an additional $65 million to K-12 schools, $25 million to early childhood education and $40 million to higher education and the popular TOPS scholarship program.
The plan does not outline a specific teacher pay raise, despite the governor’s frequent campaign promises to build on the hard-won salary bump public school teachers received in last year’s budget.
Dardenne said school districts can fund pay raises at their discretion with additional $39 million they would receive. Last year’s $1,000 raise for teachers and $500 raise for support staff cost the state $100 million annually.
About $23 million more would go to a variety of legislatively mandated initiatives, including pay raises for judges and district attorneys, an increase in the per diem paid to local jails that house state prisoners and the expansion of Medicaid benefits to children with developmental disabilities.
The plan would also dedicate an additional $3 million to juvenile detention centers to account for a new law that would prohibit the prosecution of minors as adults.
Several Republican committee members criticized the governor for not prioritizing transportation infrastructure in the plan. Instead, Edwards utilized bonds that draw down future federal funding to address the state’s backlog of road and bridge projects.
Senate President Page Cortez call that “short sighted.”
“At some point I think the administration should look at possibly using some state general fund dollars to fund transportation,” Cortez said.
The proposal is aspirational. State law mandates that the annual executive budget proposal be built upon an official revenue forecast developed by non-partisan state economists and unanimously approved by the four-member Revenue Estimating Conference, or REC.
In their push for a smaller state budget, House Speaker Clay Schexnayder and Senate President Cortez attempted urged the panel to adopt a forecast $103 million lower than state economists projections.
Dardenne, acting on behalf of the governor, refused, and the administration opted for a less formal proposal.
Schexnayder and Cortez defended their actions.
Dardenne said he is confident the additional revenue will be recognized before the budget bill clears the House Appropriations Committee this spring, but he said the administration could balance the budget at the lower level by eliminating the new investments in education or imposing steep cuts on the Department of Health.
The governor’s spending plan also includes $25 million in unclaimed property that Republican State Treasurer John Schroder said he will not transfer to the legislature for appropriations. On Friday, the governor’s executive counsel sued Schroder, asking a judge to demand Schroder turn over the money.