(The Center Square) – Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards laid out his budget priorities for the upcoming fiscal year Monday, highlighting new recurring investments in education and one-time spending on infrastructure projects across the state.
Edwards contrasted the state’s past budget issues with the roughly $1.6 billion in increased revenue and a flood of federal funds for the next fiscal year, and he stressed his administration is focused on paying off debt, building up infrastructure and improving education with the higher revenue.
“Today, I’m announcing our most significant new investments yet – focusing on education at all levels, including at least a $1,500 pay raise for teachers, funded with recurring state general fund,” Edwards said. “This budget also includes significant new investments in infrastructure, using non-recurring revenue from surplus, excess and American Rescue Plan dollars.”
Edwards’ budget proposal, which Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne will present to the Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget on Tuesday, includes more than $1.1 billion in funding for infrastructure. The proposal includes $500 million for a new Mississippi River Bridge in Baton Rouge, $100 million for the I-10 Calcasieu River Bridge in Lake Charles, $100 million for the I-49 Lafayette Connector and $500 million for water and sewer upgrades statewide.
The money is in addition to billions of dollars in federal funding for Louisiana from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and Disaster Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act.
Edwards also highlighted a proposed investment in all levels of education, including $148.4 million in raises for teachers and staff that translates into a pay raise of $1,500 each annually, which Edwards said should increase if revenue forecasts improve further later this spring.
“The state of Louisiana can’t afford not to pay our teachers more,” he said. “We have to incentivize our young people to go into education.”
Edwards’ budget proposal also includes $31.7 million for higher education faculty raises, $5 million for Title IX offices, $15 million increase in GO Grants and $25 million for the Higher Education Initiatives fund.
The proposal would deposit $10.5 million into the MJ Foster Promise Program Fund – used for financial support for nontraditional community and technical college students – as well as a $43.3 million increase in funding for early childhood education, he said.
Other priorities include a $400 million to repay a federal loan to rebuild the New Orleans levee and $135 million for an old debt to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
“One of the things you should always do when you have excess and surplus is look at those debts,” he said.
Edwards wants to dedicate $550 million in federal American Rescue Plan funding to replenish the state’s Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund, which has been depleted by the COVID-19 pandemic. He noted that if the fund balance isn’t restored to at least $750 million by September, it will trigger an automatic tax on businesses to replace the funds.
“The pandemic placed incredible strain on our unemployment trust fund, and this investment will help ensure that unemployment benefits do not drop and also avoid a tax increase on businesses when they need it the least,” he said.
Edwards proposed rate increases for Medicaid service providers “across the board” – from $13 or $14 an hour to $18.50 – as well as about $109 million in deferred maintenance work on state property.
Dardenne noted the $109 million is for all deferred maintenance at state owned buildings, but “we’re hoping a significant portion of this $109 million will go toward higher ed.”
Edwards’ proposed budget also would result in the largest ever investment in the state’s coastal program of $1.3 billion, though 60% of that funding will come from a BP oil spill settlement.
The funding would go toward 18 large scale dredging projects, creating 14,000 acres of new land.
Edwards repeatedly stressed throughout the news conference that his administration crafted a budget residents “can be proud of” by focusing on avoiding future funding issues.
“Our pledge is to craft a responsible budget that doesn’t create funding problems in the future years because it aligns one-time funding with one-time expenditures,” he said. “While we are blessed to have budget surpluses and ample federal funding this year, it would be unwise to dedicate these dollars to recurring expenses, which is why our budget focuses them on longer-term investments.”