- Associated Press - Sunday, December 16, 2018

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - By refusing to boost Louisiana’s income projections, House Republican leaders threaten to spoil Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards‘ push to include a public school teacher pay raise in his budget proposal for next year.

House Speaker Taylor Barras and House Appropriations Chairman Cameron Henry say they haven’t blocked the forecast changes to disrupt Edwards‘ plans, but are taking a conservative financial stance. If the intention isn’t political payback, the implications certainly can’t be something Barras and Henry are frowning about.

The move potentially damages a promise the governor, who often clashes with the House GOP leadership, has been making to his teacher union base as Edwards enters the year he’s seeking re-election to a second term.

At two meetings of the Revenue Estimating Conference, Barras and Henry rejected the advice of economists who said tax collections and economic modeling support an increase in the state’s income forecast for the budget year that ends June 30 and the next budget year. Those projections determine how much money lawmakers and the governor can spend each year. Modifications require a unanimous vote from the four-member panel.

The two House Republican leaders talked of uncertainty in corporate tax collections, questions about the federal tax changes and a plunge in oil prices.

“You want to avoid a midyear budget adjustment situation should any of these categories fall apart, particularly oil,” said Barras, a banker who lives in the Acadiana oil patch region. “What oil has done from October to November is incredibly alarming.”

Republican Senate President John Alario and Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne, both conference members, said the state has a clear picture that revenue is trending up.

“Things are better,” Dardenne said. “You can’t bury your head in the sand and pretend they’re not better.”

Most immediately, refusal to change the forecast stalls a $43 million list of spending plans this year, mainly on public safety programs. But the move also keeps Edwards from having the extra cash he anticipated to steer toward the public school pay raises.

The governor, whose wife was a teacher and whose daughter is an elementary school counselor, has described the salary boosts as his “number one priority” for the legislative session that starts in April.

The proposal Edwards outlined involves a $1,000 pay raise for teachers and a $500 increase for support staff such as teacher aides and cafeteria workers. He said he’ll have a three-year plan to raise salaries to the Southern average, along with block grant increases to school districts.

The price tag for the first year, Edwards said, is about $135 million.

Edwards expected improved tax collection projections to help cover that cost in his budget proposal due to lawmakers in February.

Barras, whose wife is a retired teacher, and Henry said they support teacher raises and aren’t trying to stop them.

“I don’t expect a single member to vote to oppose the teacher pay raise,” Henry said.

But Barras said: “In all fairness to our teachers, we need to make sure that the revenue is reliable and certainly recurring, and I just don’t believe we’re at that point.”

Henry said if the governor wants a pay raise in his budget proposal, he needs to prioritize available dollars. Louisiana is projected to have $162 million more in general state tax income next budget year than this year, under existing projections.

Dardenne said without additional revenue, financing a teacher pay hike in next year’s budget would require cuts elsewhere, digging into dollars planned for another agency. He called it “creating an unnecessary political firestorm.”

“We don’t need to put teachers through this uncertainty based upon what the economists are telling us. We think and we believe we have additional revenue, and to make that a question mark at this point is irresponsible,” Dardenne said.

Barras said he’d prefer to make forecast changes in March - which also happens to be just past when the governor’s budget proposal must be released.

Dardenne’s not giving up, saying he expects another Revenue Estimating Conference meeting before Edwards‘ budget is due. Teachers also are pressing the case, with Barras saying he’s received hundreds of emails about the blocked forecast changes.

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EDITOR’S NOTE: Melinda Deslatte has covered Louisiana politics for The Associated Press since 2000. Follow her at http://twitter.com/melindadeslatte


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