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Teacher stipends, early childhood funding restored in latest Louisiana budget proposal

JULIE O'DONOGHUE - Louisiana lawmakers have restored money for public school teacher pay stipends and early childhood education programs in the latest version of the state budget plan released Wednesday evening.

The Louisiana Senate Finance Committee approved new versions of most of the state spending bills expected to go into effect July 1. Members made dozens of changes to the Louisiana House version of the plan, though details haven’t been made fully available to the public.

As of Thursday morning, senators still hadn’t released the specific language of their budget amendments, but short summaries of each change were passed out to reporters and lobbyists after the Senate Finance Committee adjourned.

Based on those summaries, the Senate Finance Committee added back $33 million for teacher stipends that the House removed last month. The adjustment brings the amount lawmakers intend to spend on the teacher stipend to around $198 million in total.

If distributed evenly, the funding will give teachers and school support staff the same $2,000 and $1,000 stipends they received in the current school year, but the pay will only be temporary. Gov. Jeff Landry and lawmakers have declined to include the money as part of teachers’ permanent compensation moving forward.

The senators also restored a $24.2 million cut to early childhood education programs, which should preserve 2,000 slots for young children. They also added another $24.3 million to the state’s public school funding formula, which calls for spending more on tutoring services and supplemental pay to teachers in hard-to-fill positions.

The Senate has more money to work with for its budget plan than the House did last month. State revenue projections increased in early May, giving senators $197 million more to use in the current budget year and $88 million more in the next cycle.

While teachers aren’t getting a permanent raise, the senators have proposed pay hikes for other public employees and increasing staff in a few state departments at Gov. Jeff Landry’s request.

The revised budget plan includes $5.8 million to hire 70 more staff members at the Swanson Center for Youth, a newly renovated juvenile prison in the Monroe area. The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries is also getting $4 million to increase pay for its law enforcement agents.

The state is also putting $10 million toward increasing the reimbursement rate for home health care aides who work at night so their pay can equal that of day-shift workers. They typically work for nonprofit organizations and help individuals living with disabilities.

Attorney General Liz Murrill’s office will also receive $1.6 million to add nine positions to deal with approximately 500 criminal cases in New Orleans that Murrill agreed to take over from District Attorney Jason Williams. The state police are also getting an extra $700,000 for its crime lab operations.

At Landry’s urging, the Department of Children and Family Services is also receiving an additional $13 million, in part to pay for more therapeutic foster care beds and short-term residential placements.

The Senate Finance Committee has also granted Landry’s request for $1 million in extra money to hire three attorneys in his executive office to handle public records requests. Landry has complained several times this spring that his staff has to handle too many requests from journalists and the public for government documents and information from his office.

The governor had pushed the Senate for weeks to change a state law that would have allowed his office to deny many more requests for government documents and information, but senators have largely rebuffed his efforts. They do appear willing to give him more money to deal with those petitions for public information, however.

Growing legal costs are a broader theme of the Senate budget adjustments. The committee gave Wildlife and Fisheries $2.5 million to cover legal fees related to the degradation of coastal properties it owns or manages.

It also allocated $1.5 million to the Secretary of State’s office to pay for political redistricting litigation and nearly $25,000 to cover legal fees related to housing underage incarcerated youth at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola.

A federal judge ordered the young people removed from Louisiana’s largest maximum security adult prison last fall, but the state has continued to fight the judge’s decision in court.

Senators also agreed to devote more than $98,000 to fixing the building at Angola that housed the minors for several months because the incarcerated youth damaged the facility while staying there.

On a different front, the committee inserted $500,000 into the budget for a potential constitutional convention that Landry has been pushing to convene later this summer, and it added another $1 million for the controversial alternatives to abortion program, bringing its funding to $4 million overall.

The budget also includes many more pet projects for legislators’ home districts that will cost the state several million dollars if they remain in the spending plan.

The Louisiana House had already added over $40 million in pet project funding to the budget proposal last month, and the Senate changes appear to significantly increase the number and size of those allocations. These earmarks include local golf courses, schools, courthouses, fraternal organizations and nonprofits that would not otherwise receive state funding.

Lawmakers have continued to put pet projects into the budget plan, even though state Treasurer John Fleming warned last month that his office is still struggling to disperse $165 million worth of similar projects from past years.

At a hearing in April, Fleming said his staff hasn’t been able to distribute a significant portion of the pet project money allocated because the entities who are supposed to receive money haven’t filled out and returned the appropriate paperwork.

Fleming requested an extra staff member so his office could better address the backlog of pet projects awaiting funding. The Senate granted his wish, giving his office an additional $110,000 for a new employee to handle the contracts.

The full Senate is expected to take up the budget bills up for votes next week. The legislation will then return to the House for a review, and lawmakers from the two chambers will likely enter a few days of negotiations over the spending plan before giving it final approval.

Landry, as governor, will have the power to remove items from any approved budget if he doesn’t like them. Lawmakers can overrule his vetoes but rarely take that step.


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