- Associated Press - Friday, February 26, 2021

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - Gov. John Bel Edwards kicked off Louisiana’s annual budget negotiations Friday by suggesting a more than $36 billion spending plan for next year, asking lawmakers to use federal pandemic aid to avoid cuts while steering new dollars to education raises and programs.

The governor’s 2021-22 state operating budget recommendations were released to the joint House and Senate budget committee, marking the start of months of haggling with lawmakers over a final plan to pay for programs and services in the financial year that begins July 1.

The budget proposal is rosier than expected, after the state treasury took a hit from the coronavirus outbreak. Louisiana’s tax collections are rebounding, though not enough to match pre-pandemic levels. The Edwards administration wants to use continuing federal coronavirus aid, particularly $608 million in enhanced federal payments to cover Medicaid expenses, to close gaps and piece together the plan. The state took a similar approach this year.

“We don’t recommend cuts in this budget, based on our ability to maximize the use of other dollars,” Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne, the governor’s chief budget adviser told lawmakers.

But when the federal aid disappears, the governor and lawmakers would have to find other financing sources to keep those programs and services from facing steep cuts.



“To replace this one-time money is a pretty substantial figure,” said House Appropriations Chairman Jerome “Zee” Zeringue, a Houma Republican.

The budget would grow $186 million next year in Edwards‘ recommendations, nearly two-thirds of the increase steered to education.

K-12 public schools would see new spending to give teachers a $400 pay raise and support staff such as teacher aides, bus drivers and cafeteria workers an extra $200 annually, increases that cost $40 million. The money falls far short of what’s needed to get teachers to the Southern average, a long-sought Edwards goal.

Public colleges would get an $80 million increase. That includes money for increased health and retirement costs, new dollars for faculty salary increases, a boost to the Go Grant program that provides financial aid for needy students and more money for the TOPS college program to ensure full tuition is paid for students who meet the academic requirements.

Commissioner of Higher Education Kim Hunter Reed said in a statement Friday that the Democratic governor’s proposal “sends a clear message: education is critical to our success and now is the time to make strategic investments in our people.” She said the budget would offer the first statewide faculty pay raise in 13 years.

More money would be spent on housing state inmates, both in prisons and jails run by local sheriffs. Civil service workers would get raises. Dollars would be steered to upgrades in communications equipment used by first responders around the state.

Louisiana’s Medicaid program - paid with state and federal dollars - would total $16 billion, accounting for more than 40% of the entire operating budget. Education programs would receive 27% of the financing in the proposal.

The governor gave a preview of his education pay raise plans a day earlier, but Friday was the first look at the entire spending plan presented to the majority-Republican House and Senate.

Senate President Page Cortez, a Lafayette Republican, said he was “100% in support” of the K-12 teacher pay raise.

“That’s a hard one not to do,” he said. “Teachers have had a tough go” in the pandemic.

Edwards‘s budget proposal relies heavily on enhanced federal payments for Medicaid expenses to keep the spending plans in balance.

States pay a share of the cost for the health services provided to Medicaid patients, a share tied to the state’s poverty level and other factors established by Congress and federal officials. Because of the pandemic, the federal government is paying a greater share for some services above what it usually pays. That diminishes the state’s costs so those dollars can be used elsewhere.

The governor’s budget recommendations do not include federal coronavirus aid proposed by President Joe Biden that is currently under negotiation in Congress. If approved, that could give Edwards and lawmakers more money to spend.

Lawmakers start the legislative session in April and are not expected to finish crafting a spending plan until the session’s final days in June.

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Follow Melinda Deslatte on Twitter at http://twitter.com/melindadeslatte.

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