By Jeff Adelson, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune
Louisiana House and Senate negotiators have struck a deal on the state budget with less than 24 hours left in this year's legislative session. The final version of the $25 billion spending plan includes a pay increase for teachers and additional funding for school districts, a pair of bills aimed at overhauling the state's budget process in future years and a series of measures increasing revenues through trimming tax breaks and instituting a temporary tax amnesty.
The agreement has the support of the nine negotiators and Gov. Bobby Jindal, but has not yet been presented to the full membership of the chambers. Representatives said they would be bringing the plan to their delegations Wednesday night and were optimistic that a budget would be approved by the end of the session at 6 p.m. Thursday.
The deal retains many of the key proposals by many of the groups in the House, including Democrats, a group of Republicans known as the fiscal hawks and the Legislative Black Caucus
"We achieved the principal goals of each of those groups," Democratic Caucus Chairman John Bel Edwards of Amite said.
The session has seen the House take a leading role in the budget discussions, first by brokering a bipartisan compromise between its various factions that yielded a budget that eliminated non-recurring revenues in favor of the trims to tax breaks and spending cuts. When the Senate heavily altered the plan Sunday, House membersrejected those changes and worked on an alternative proposal.
Essentially all the demands the House have made since receiving the Senate's version of the budget have been met.
About $68 million will be directed toward local school districts, half of which will be earmarked for raises for certified classroom teachers. The districts will be able to decide how it spends the rest of the money.
Both Jindal and Edwards, who has announced plans to run to succeed the governor in 2015, praised the inclusion of that money.
"This is a very good investment," Jindal said.
While that money now amounts to a one-time bump, Jindal pledged that he would work with the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education to include the same amount in the formula used to calculate state support for school districts in future years.
One the other side of the education issue, the budget also retains funding for an expansion of the voucher program from about 4,000 students to about 8,500.
The budget also includes revenue from a series of changes to tax credit programs, such as the Enterprise Zone and tax credits for solar energy systems, aimed at boosting the amount of money in state coffers. That will come on top of a short-term infusion of cash through a multi-year amnesty for delinquent tax payers.
The changes to the tax credit programs, however, will be offset by new tax credits this session. Jindal said Wednesday that he would have no problem signing those bills so long as the total amount of revenue to the state did not increase.
Two measures promoted by the fiscal hawks to change future budgetary procedures, who have opposed the use of one-time money in the budget, will also be passed as part of the overall plan. Those measures would give lawmakers a better idea of what areas of the budget they can adjust, as opposed to the areas that are off-limits because of legal restrictions, and would require a more thorough review of state revenue.
Overall, Jindal praised the budget itself, ticking off the increase for school districts, a lack of tax increases and the failure of bills that would have forced the state to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, more commonly known as Obamacare. Some lawmakers had argued expanding Medicaid, a move Jindal has opposed on concerns it would cost the state down the line, would help the state's budget problems but the measures that would have allowed that were shot down in both chambers.
"I want to praise both legislative branches for working very hard" on the budget, Jindal said.
The final spending plan falls short of the fiscal hawk's goal of eliminating all one-time money in the state budget. Representatives said they the proposal contained about $30 million to $100 million in one-time money and are awaiting an analysis for legislative staff.
Earlier in the day Rep. Brett Geymann, a leader of the fiscal hawks, said that while the use of any one-time money in the budget would generate opposition from some members of his group, the passage of the budget reform bills was enough of a win
to get general support for the package.
"It's a victory for in the passage of these bills right now," he said.
Throughout the day Wednesday, lawmakers held occasionally heated private meetings and negotiations aimed at bridging the gap between the two budgets, lawmakers said. Much of the animosity of those exchanges could be due to frayed nerves at the end of the session rather than significant disagreements over policy, Geymann said.
Still, Geymann, R-Lake Charles, said he was remaining cautiously optimistic "until we're all hugging and patting each other on the back that we got a budget out of here."
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Sen. Jack Donahue, R-Covington, said praised the House for doing a "good job crafting their bill" and argued that the changes made through the Senate process made it a better budget.
The final budget package is a significantly different than Jindal's initial proposal and Edwards argued the effort showed the power of the coalition that had been built. While that group has significant ideological differences on many issues, Edwards said he expected more cooperation between the sides in future sessions.
"Clearly it's not possible on every issue but on some of the larger, overarching interests, sure," Edwards said.
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