The Louisiana House committee advances the budget; debate set for Thursday

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — A Louisiana House panel on Monday advanced a proposed state operating budget that includes $148 million for salary increases for teachers and school support staff and $104 million. million for higher education faculty pay raises, but cuts a proposed $100-month increase in state supplemental pay for local police and firefighters.

Still up in the air as the state’s $38 billion operating budget and related budget bills left the House Appropriations Committee on Monday was the future of Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards’ proposal to allocate $500 million in one-time revenue to a new bridge over the Mississippi River in Baton Rouge, a project that administration officials say could eventually cost about $2.5 billion.

Initial bridge funding, along with salary increases for education, were among the priorities Edwards laid out in his annual budget proposal earlier this year.

The proposals came as lawmakers, after facing years of tight budgets, were poised to debate how best to spend higher tax revenues and an influx of more than $2.8 billion in revenue one-time – $1.4 billion from federal pandemic assistance, $700 million surplus from fiscal year 2021, and revenue $853 million higher than forecast for the current year.

As the committee prepared to move the budget legislation to the full House for a debate scheduled for Thursday, Speaker Jerome Zeringue, a Houma Republican, touted education increases as well as increased funding for education initiatives early childhood education, drinking water programs and an allocation of $500 million. to refurbish the state unemployment trust fund. This allocation, funders said, will prevent Louisiana businesses from facing rising unemployment insurance costs to replenish a fund that was depleted when the coronavirus pandemic led to large job losses. jobs.

But the committee approved an amendment removing the additional pay increase for parish and municipal police and firefighters. Rep. Jack McFarland, a Republican from Jonesboro, said the proposed raise, along with other legislation that could add more local emergency workers to those already receiving extra pay, could potentially pressure finances on the state.

“Certainly they are worth more than what we provide,” said Zeringue. “But this is a recurring expense and we need to consider trying to engage and involve local governments as well to support their local fire and police.

Rep. Dustin Miller, a Democrat from Opelousas, expressed hope that the extra pay raise could be reinstated in the budget after a state panel, the Earnings Estimate Conference, convened to make his official revenue projection, which could mean more money.

As for the bridge, Republican legislative leaders have been slow to back Edwards’ proposal, saying the money could sit unused for years while plans for the bridge take shape. Zeringue said Monday that House and Senate leaders are discussing the issue. Meanwhile, among the bills the panel advanced on Monday was a proposal to create a “Louisiana-wide infrastructure revitalization and development” fund. Zeringue described the RADIAL fund as a place to “park” non-recurring revenue that Edwards wants to use for the bridge while talks are ongoing.

Edwards’ top financial official, Administration Commissioner Jay Dardenne, repeated the administration’s assertion that the money needs to be spent on the bridge now. He said recommendations on the bridge site are expected in the coming months. He said committing $500 million to the project would help the state seek competitive grants and other funding for a project with a possible total cost of $2.5 billion.

“I like the concept of the RADIAL fund, I just hope the Mississippi River Bridge isn’t a spare tire,” Dardenne said.

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