In the final half an hour of Louisiana’s Legislative Session, lawmakers on Thursday hastily passed an approximately $45 billion budget plan but were given little explanation for budget amendments crafted behind closed doors by a six-member committee.
The approved budget included spending a chunk of the state’s estimated $2.2 billion in extra revenue on temporary $2,000 teacher pay raises, paying down retirement debt, infrastructure projects and offsetting expiring federal pandemic relief funds used for early childhood education access.
With the clock ticking down, the rushed vote was met with an outcry from House conservatives who argued they didn’t have enough time to read the new budget proposal and accused Republican Speaker Clay Schexnayder of not following floor rules.
Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards and members of the Senate said they were blindsided and confused by a $100-million funding reduction to the Louisiana Department of Health from a previously proposed budget draft.
“I want to let everyone in this state know that I will use every means at my disposal to minimize or completely eliminate the funding reduction (to the Louisiana Department of Health,” Edwards said during a press conference Thursday.
Lawmakers gave little explanation about the cutback or what health services would be impacted. But opponents said the deduction could have major repercussions, costing the state a few hundred million dollars more when lost federal funding is included.
“To do that (cut) — in a time when our fiscal situation is better than it ever has been, when we have more money in the bank than we have ever and when our fiscal forecast is so strong — is just ridiculous,” Edwards said.
For years, during financial woes under former Gov. Bobby Jindal, lawmakers were forced to cut areas of the budget. But this year, with an estimated $2.2 billion in extra revenue, legislators debated how best to spend a surplus of funds.
Over the past two months, the proposed budget plan has gone through a multitude of versions. At the start of Session, Edwards, a Democrat, outlined a $45.7 billion spending plan that used surplus money for one-time transportation projects, $3,000 teacher raises, disaster-related debt owed to the federal government and to offset expiring federal pandemic relief funds used to provide early learning access.
The House wanted a more conservative budget, steering surplus money toward paying down retirement debt, while the Senate restored many of the governor’s proposals. In the final hour of Session, the two chambers agreed on a budget with teacher pay raises, local lawmaker projects, hundreds of millions to pay down retirement debt, coastal restoration, university needs and transportation projects. The final budget was made possible by a vote to breach the state’s constitutional expenditure limit.
Despite the state Constitution requiring lawmakers to focus on fiscal and budgetary matters this session, debates over controversial bills between Republicans, who control the legislature, and Democrats have highlighted the cultural divide in Baton Rouge.
This year’s most contentious pieces of legislation in the state echoed trends seen in GOP-dominated statehouses across the country. They included a package of bills targeting the transgender community, failed legislation seeking permitless concealed carry and tough-on-crime measures increasing certain criminal penalties.
Edwards said he intends to veto a series of bills that opponents fear will negatively impact LGBTQ+ youths.
“You’ve heard me say this before, we’re not Washington D.C., yet we’re moving in that direction and that is not a good thing,” Edwards said of the legislative partisanship.
The Legislature is not set to meet again until March. But as lawmakers adjourned Thursday, uncertainty lingered over if legislators will return to the Capitol sooner than expected following news of the U.S. Supreme Court’s surprising ruling in favor of Black voters in a congressional redistricting case from Alabama.
As a result of the high court’s decision Louisiana’s current congressional map, which previously was found to be discriminatory by a lower court. likely will have to be redrawn. The need for a Special Session to address the issue is still uncertain.
Additionally, if Edwards vetoes any bills, the legislature could convene for a veto session in an attempt to override the Governor’s decision. Republicans do hold a veto-proof majority if they vote along party lines.
Republished with permission from The Associated Press.