Education the flashpoint in $30B budget backed by House

Louisiana Budget_1557428740616

FILE – In this April 29, 2013 file photo, State Rep. Walt Leger III, D-New Orleans testifies in front of the House Committee on Appropriations on House Bill 452 authored by State Rep. Jim Fannin, D-Jonesboro, at the Louisiana State Capitol in Baton Rouge, La. Disagreements over public school spending are shifting to the Senate. […]

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Disagreements over spending on Louisiana’s public schools are shifting to the Senate, after the House on Thursday backed a $30 billion state operating budget with different teacher pay raises and school district financing levels than Gov. John Bel Edwards wants.

Under the House’s 2019-20 spending plan, public elementary and secondary school teachers would get a $1,200 raise and support workers $600, rather than the $1,000 and $500 levels backed by the Democratic governor. But the budget proposal crafted by House Republican leaders doesn’t contain the $39 million in flexible block grant funding for districts that Edwards and the state education board want to cover other expenses.

The proposal for the financial year that begins July 1 would boost spending $300 million next year, with increases for health care programs, colleges, juvenile justice and the child welfare agency, in addition to the K-12 schools’ pay raises. State workers would get salary boosts. The TOPS program would cover full college tuition for all eligible students. The Office of Motor Vehicles would get more money, aimed at reducing wait times for customers.

The House voted 100-1 to send the spending plan to the Senate after less than three hours of debate.

“This is one of the easiest budget processes that we have gone through in the four years I’ve been up here,” said Appropriations Chairman Cameron Henry, the Jefferson Parish Republican who handles the budget bill in the House.

Even as Democratic lawmakers objected to excluding the block grant money for school districts, they voted for the budget proposal, with the financial debate diverging dramatically from prior years. Ending nearly a decade of budget gaps, the governor and lawmakers agreed on a seven-year tax compromise last year that has lawmakers this session haggling over how to spend new money, rather than bickering over where to cut.

“This budget is in much better shape this year than it has been in years past,” said New Orleans Rep. Walt Leger, the top-ranking Democrat in the House.

Rep. Tanner Magee, a Houma Republican, noted the budget debate lacked the intensity of past angry arguments over how to slash spending: “In comparison to the last years of debates, this is definitely a snoozer.”

Despite the improved financial forecasts, wish lists greatly exceed available dollars.

The House-backed budget proposal doesn’t include new money sought by sheriffs to house state inmates in their jails or by judges seeking pay raises. Millions wanted by early childhood education advocates to help more children from birth to 3 years old didn’t make it into the bill either, even as House members talked of needing more access for parents to early learning programs.

“I am firmly a believer that this is the way to move our state forward,” said Rep. Stephanie Hilferty, a New Orleans Republican.

Henry said he would like to steer more money to early childhood programs, but he added: “You have to weigh it against everything else.”

Combined with other budget bills, total spending across state, legislative and judicial agencies next year would top $34 billion. Legislative agencies would get a largely flat $96 million budget next year, and the Louisiana Supreme Court and the judiciary would get a standstill $173 million budget. Both the Legislature and judiciary are sitting on surpluses.

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