This story was first reported by Louisiana Illuminator and republished with permission.
The Louisiana Legislature prioritized roads, bridges and lawmakers’ pet projects in its $43 billion dollar spending plan for the state budget cycle that starts July 1.
Lawmakers’ budget negotiations were easier this year because the state ended up having over $2 billion in unexpected money to spend. In recent years, legislators have had to negotiate spending cuts and tax hikes in order to balance the state’s finances, but this year, they were working with bonus funding. They approved their operating budget two weeks earlier than expected.
The additional cash came from better-than-expected tax revenue. The state anticipates receiving $677 million more in revenue over the next 13 months than it initially expected. The federal government has also provided $1.6 billion in additional funds for economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Here’s a list of who is benefitting — and who’s been left out — during the influx of cash:
WINNERS: People fighting for better roads and bridges
Over a third of the $1.6 billion in COVID-19 recovery funding from the federal government will go to road and bridge projects. This includes the widening of Interstates 10, 12 and 20 as well as work on the Jimmie Davis Bridge in the Shreveport area and the Calcasieu River Bridge in the Lake Charles area. There’s millions of dollars in road and bridge projects elsewhere in the budget as well.
After talking a big game about forcing the Saints and the Louisiana Superdome operators to pay more of their own way, lawmakers have agreed to a plan that cobbles together the $90 million in funding the Superdome’s management company was seeking.
The money will now come through the state bond commission, state construction budget and money the casino Harrah’s New Orleans owes the state government. Some funding is also expected from the state in future years.
Legislators had balked at giving ASM Global — which manages the state-owned Superdome — $90 million earlier in the session, but Gov. John Bel Edwards made the allocation a priority.
The Superdome has stalled on a massive $450 million renovation project due to a lack of funds recently. The $90 million will help that project start moving again, said Jay Dardenne, Louisiana’s commissioner of administration.
Edwards had promised Saints and Pelicans owner Gayle Benson that the state would help cover the cost of the project in exchange for the Saints agreeing to stay in Louisiana for several more years.
LOSER: Medicaid budget
Louisiana’s Medicaid budget is still short $23.8 million in state funding when compared to the budget proposal submitted by the governor. That could result in a reduction of $82.1 million overall, because the state won’t be able to put up all the money needed to draw down federal funds.
It’s hard to know what could be affected by this drop in revenue. The Louisiana Department of Health initially said it would take the money out of allocations given to the safety-net hospitals, but lawmakers have added language to the budget prohibiting a reduction to those hospitals. This means the reduction will have to be absorbed somewhere else in the Medicaid program. It’s not clear where.
The judiciary budget includes funding for all state judges to receive a 2.5 percent raise in the next budget cycle. The judges are in the middle of a series of raises that are expected to happen over five consecutive years. At the end of the raises, their pay will have gone up 12 percent overall, lawmakers said.
WINNERS: Movie theater owners
Legislators have given $4.5 million of their federal COVID-19 recovery money to movie theater operators. Theaters that can demonstrate they lost revenue during the pandemic will receive at least $10,000 for every screen they have.
LOSERS: State Rep. Ray Garofalo and St. Bernard Parish
Garofalo — the only House member to represent St. Bernard Parish — has been feuding with House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, R-Gonzales, over the past several weeks. Schexnayder removed Garofalo as chairman of the House Education Committee, and his local elected officials saw some of their funding removed from the state’s spending plan.
Earlier this month, lawmakers had agreed to give the St. Bernard Sheriff’s Office $1.9 million in funding. That money was taken out of the state budget this week.
WINNERS: Conservatives concerned about state debt
Louisiana lawmakers are using hundreds of millions of the extra dollars they are receiving to pay off federal debt.
They are paying the federal government $400 million to help cover the construction of the post-Hurricane Katrina levee system that protects Orleans, Jefferson, Plaquemine, St. Charles, and St. Bernard parishes. They are also paying off $190 million in loans the state received from the federal government to pay out unemployment benefits during 2020 and 2021.
WINNERS: People who care for people with disabilities
Lawmakers agreed to raise the state’s payments to organizations who care for people with disabilities enrolled in Medicaid programs. These organizations had begged lawmakers to pay them more so they could raise wages. They are having a hard time finding people to hire. It’s not clear yet how big the wage increase might be for those employees. State officials will set those rates later in the year.
LOSERS: People who menstruate
The budget doesn’t account for a tax break on feminine hygiene products and diapers that Rep. Aimee Freeman, D-New Orleans, has sponsored.
House Bill 7 would exempt feminine hygiene products and diapers from the state sales tax of 4.45 percent. If approved, it would cost $10.2 million in state funding next year and $11.1 million in years that follow.
Since lawmakers haven’t anticipated the tax break in their budget proposal, it is much less likely to pass.
WINNER: Terrebonne Parish
Legislators have added millions of dollars of local pet projects into the state spending plan. This includes at least $3.2 million for Terrebonne Parish, which is represented by two legislative leaders — House Speaker Pro Tempore Tanner Magee and House Appropriations Chairman Jerome Zeringue.
The Terrebonne projects include $1 million for Pointe-Aux-Chenese Elementary, $1 million for the construction of a Terrebonne Parish health unit, $900,000 for downtown Houma economic development projects and $300,000 for the South Louisiana Wetlands Discovery Center located in Houma.
WINNER: Lafayette Parish
Lafayette is receiving $13.5 million for road improvements in next year’s spending plan. Senate President Page Cortez and House Ways and Means Chairman Stuart Bishop — who controls the state’s construction budget — both represent Lafayette.
LOSERS: Tangipahoa Parish 1983 flooding victims
Victims of the 1983 flooding in Tangipahoa Parish may not get any of the money a judge awarded to them after a successful lawsuit nearly four decades ago.
The lawmakers’ budget originally included $30 million for 1,400 flooding victims to whom the state currently owes $300 million. But the final version of the budget only includes $15 million for them — and a provision that might allow the state to use that money for other purposes.
WINNERS AND LOSERS: Public school teachers
The lawmakers included an $800 raise for public school teachers and $400 raise for public school support staff in their budget, but the teachers and other employees had been hoping for more. Legislators had initially discussed a $1,000 raise for teachers and $500 raise for school support staff, but ended up backing off that proposal. They said the extra funding would cost $20 million and needed to be used for other priorities.
WINNER: LSU Agricultural Center
Lawmakers have given the LSU AgCenter an extra $11.8 million in the next budget cycle, including $7 million to renovate Parker Agricultural Coliseum on LSU’s Baton Rouge campus. The current House Speaker, Schexnayder, is former head of the House committee that oversees agriculture issues and a big supporter of the AgCenter.
The Southern University Agricultural Center has also been allocated an extra $1.5 million.
LOSER: Early Childhood Education
Advocates had been pushing for at least $6 million to expand early childhood education programs, but so far there’s no money in the state’s spending plan for them. There are a couple proposals still on the table to generate money for the programs — through medical marijuana and sports betting taxes — but it’s not clear how much money would be included. The bill also might not pass.
WINNER: Logging Industry
Lawmakers set aside $10 million for “timber harvesting” and “timber hauling” businesses affected by COVID-19. The grants would be capped at $25,000 per company. Legislators said they were singling out the logging industry for support because loggers had been left out of a agricultural industry relief package from the federal government.
WINNERS: Students fighting for better LSU lighting
The university will get $4 million to improve lighting on its Baton Rouge campus. During hearings on LSU’s sexual misconduct scandal, students told women lawmakers that they often felt unsafe walking around campus. Sen. Regina Barrow, D-Baton Rouge, pushed for the extra funding for lighting to be included in the budget.
LOSERS: Lawmakers handling future budget crises
Legislators had talked about putting extra money into the state’s “rainy day fund” — in order to better prepare for a future revenue downturn and budget crisis, but they didn’t divert additional funding toward that account as they had discussed.
WINNERS: Senate President Page Cortez and House Speaker Clay Schexnayder
Legislative leaders managed to send most of its budget plan to the governor two weeks prior to the end of the legislative session. Typically, legislators are scrambling right up until the deadline to approve the state’s spending plan. Lawmakers in the House and Senate worked together this year and were more organized about putting together the budget plan. It made for an easier and less messy process in the end.