BATON ROUGE — The House gave final legislative approval to a bundle of budget bills on Thursday that include funds for $1,500 pay raises for K-12 teachers and $300 million for a new Mississippi River bridge in Baton Rouge.
The basic package had already cleared the House, but amendments made by the Senate had to be concurred.
In one of the nine bills, the House advanced the $39 billion state operating budget on a bipartisan 88-7 vote, with one Democrat, state Rep. Wilford Carter of Lake Charles, and six Republicans voting against the bill.
The Republicans were state Reps. Raymond Garofalo of Chalmette, Kathy Edmonston of Gonzales, Barry Ivey of Central, Julie Emerson of Carenco, Danny McCormick of Oil City and Blake Miguez of Erath.
The six Republicans, representing the conservative faction of the Legislature, raised concerns about one-time funds being used for recurring expenditures.
The Legislature found itself in a unique position this year. For years, the state faced budget problems, at times teetering on the edge of a fiscal cliff. Due to hundreds of millions of dollars in increased state revenues and billions in federal pandemic aid, Louisiana is flush with cash, giving lawmakers a once-in-a-political lifetime chance to fund their priorities.
State Rep. Jerome Zeringue, R-Houma, shepherded the bills as chairman of the House Appropriations Committee with an eye toward limiting the use of some of the windfall to one-time outlays.
The passage of the bills two weeks before the end of the legislative session marks the first time in recent memory that the Legislature did not pass a budget in the final moments of session. It is widely speculated that the body is hoping to avoid coming back in for a veto session to override any line-item vetoes by Edwards.
Included in the overall allocations is $300 million for a new Mississippi River bridge. Edwards originally requested $500 million for the project, but legislators balked at throwing half a billion dollars at the project when a location for a bridge has not yet been selected.
The budget also includes funds for pay raises for state employees. Public school teachers are each in line for a $1,500 raise, alongside a $750 raise for support staff. After the Revenue Estimating Conference forecasted higher revenues for the upcoming fiscal year, Edwards asked for $2,000 raises for public school teachers. The Senate declined to go that high.
Higher education faculty will be receiving $21 million for raises, about 40 percent less than the Board of Regents requested. That would be enough for most faculty members to receive 3 percent raises, though each institution will decide how to divide up its share of money.
Senate President Page Cortez, R-Lafayette, pointed out that the budget includes funds to recruit faculty for priority programs, like cancer research.
Also getting raises are judges, healthcare workers and correctional workers.
The Legislature also set aside $100 million was for pet projects of lawmakers.
The bills put money back into the depleted unemployment benefits trust fund and the state’s rainy day fund.
While most of the debate centered on House Bill 1, which provides for the state operating budget, the House also concurred on several other budget bills, including House Bill 406, which provides for supplemental appropriations and House Bill 2, which provides for capital outlay.