After years of fights over budget cuts and taxes, Louisiana’s lawmakers have an unfamiliar problem this year, deciding where to spend millions of dollars in new and increased cash expected to arrive in the state treasury.
That also is prompting bickering.
Education seems likely to be a winner in new financing for the upcoming 2019-20 budget year, but fissures are opening as different segments of education – early childhood, K-12 and colleges – clamor for the available dollars.
Early childhood education advocates are asking for $86 million annually to help children from birth to 3 years old with early learning assistance. K-12 public school leaders and teacher unions want money for pay raises, with proposals starting at around $100 million a year and growing from there. Higher education officials requested a $172 million increase for public colleges for items such as need-based student aid and faculty pay raises.
Even under the most optimistic of budget expectations, with as much as $300 million in new general state tax revenue projected to be available next year, there’s not enough money to cover all the wants across state government.
Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat seeking a second term and backed by the teacher unions, put most of his focus on boosting spending for K-12 public schools. His $30 billion operating budget proposal for the year that begins July 1 recommends a $140 million spending bump for elementary and secondary education.
The proposal includes a $1,000 across-the-board pay raise for teachers, a $500 salary hike for school support workers and new dollars for school district block grants.
He’s recommending a smaller increase in public college spending, about $26 million, with more than half those additional dollars earmarked to ensure continued full financing for the TOPS free tuition program.
Edwards didn’t recommend any new spending on early childhood education, rankling Superintendent of Education John White.
White said 3,300 families are on a waitlist for a program that helps pay for child care and early learning programs while people are working or attending school. He said that will grow to nearly 10,000 families if an existing federal subsidy isn’t renewed.
The price tag for closing the gap ranges from $15 million to $50 million, depending on whether the federal assistance continues.
“I hope the Legislature will recognize that those states that are going to provide lifelong opportunity for their young people cannot afford to segment the allocation of opportunity,” White said at a luncheon speech.
Early childhood education advocates are looking beyond the general tax base for new dollars. They’re eyeing a proposal to legalize sports betting, seeking to have any tax dollars generated from that effort dedicated to early learning aid.
Edwards supports legalizing sports betting and has said he’d consider tying it to early childhood education. White suggested that wasn’t the best approach.
It’s unclear if the sports betting measure can pass, and even if it does, no money would come immediately. Local parishes would have to decide in an election whether to authorize the activity, and the Gaming Control Board would have to write regulations.
Gene Mills, president of the Louisiana Family Forum – a network of conservative Christian churches – will be urging lawmakers to reject sports betting, saying any increase in gambling will further drain income from Louisiana families. A link to early learning assistance won’t change his mind.
“I certainly would not want to attach something as important as early childhood education to this. It’s ill-advised. It’s foolish,” Mills said. “It warrants a legitimate funding stream if we’re going to move forward with it.”
Lawmakers will craft next year’s budget in the legislative session that starts in April. Beyond education, Edwards also proposes increased spending on Medicaid, the juvenile corrections system, and the child welfare agency.
But Edwards’ entire budget proposal is a wish list that assumes he will break through an impasse with House Republican leaders that has blocked increases to the state income forecast. Currently, not enough money has been officially recognized to finance the governor’s recommendations.
Edwards and legislative leaders will need to work that out before they can settle which spending areas share in new money.