With four minutes to spare before the Louisiana Legislature's final deadline to pass bills, lawmakers approved a sweeping spending package Thursday in a series of chaotic votes marked by yelling at the House Speaker, confusion in the Senate and accusations of backdoor deal-making.
The approximately $45 billion bundle approved Thursday includes the state's main spending bill, a budget for major construction projects and a supplemental spending measure dealing with a $2.2 billion glut of extra cash the state hauled in over the past two years. The bills move next to the desk of Gov. John Bel Edwards, who put his stamp on the session by pushing for higher teacher pay and funding for early childhood education.
The package includes $2,000 supplemental pay hikes for K-12 public school teachers. But the Legislature rejected a key K-12 funding formula that needed to be approved to make the money permanent. The package also included a surprise $100 million cut to the Louisiana Department of Health, a move Edwards vowed to reverse.
Negotiations stretched all day, and by the time the budget bills were returned to the chambers, well under an hour remained until the 6 p.m. deadline, and frustrations burst into the open.
House conservatives, seeking to run out the clock of the session in protest of the way the budget was handled, according to several lawmakers, were repeatedly ignored as they asked to be recognized. Meanwhile, Speaker Clay Schexnayder, R-Gonzales, barreled ahead to quickly vote on the bills without debate.
The conservatives yelled at Schexnayder numerous times, demanding that he explain what was in the budget bills.
"This meeting is unconstitutional! This is shameful!" yelled Rep. Danny McCormick, R-Oil City, at one point.
Rep. Blake Miguez, R-New Iberia and the House Republican delegation's chair, accusing Schexnayder of breaking House decorum. “I know you’re hearing them," Miguez said of members asking questions about the bills. "Why are you not calling them? … Are you breaking the house rules?”
Surprise cut to Health Department
In the Senate, lawmakers said they were blindsided by the $100 million health department reduction, which they said could cost that department up to $400 million because of a loss of matching federal funds.
"The budget has come back in horrible, horrible condition," said Sen. J. Rogers Pope, R-Denham Springs, on the Senate floor. At one point, Sen. Fred Mills, R-Parks, who chairs the Senate's health committee, said he did not understand the cut. He later voted against the budget, as did Pope and Sen. Jay Luneau, D-Alexandria.
Senate President Page Cortez, R-Lafayette, said the House was behind the move, which he called disappointing.
"They had pressure to put more money toward pension debt," he said, referring to some House conservatives' preferred use for the glut of extra cash. "They had to placate that.”
Edwards vowed to rollback the cut in a press conference after the vote, calling it "a complete surprise."
"I want everyone in the state to know that I will use every means at my disposal to minimize or completely eliminate that reduction," he said.
House Appropriations Committee Chairman Rep. Jerome "Zee" Zeringue, R-Houma, said in an interview that the reductions include $22 million previously allocated for the health department's rollout of a plan to alert Medicaid patients of changing eligibility rules. It's not clear which programs or offices the other $78 million would affect.
Teacher pay raises
Earlier Thursday, negotiations were driven largely by how to handle the teacher pay raises. The House rejected a key K-12 funding formula crafted by the state's top school board because it funded raises for specific teachers in "high need" roles, which are opposed by teacher unions and which lawmakers largely disagreed with.
Approving the formula would have made permanent the $2,000 across-the-board raises and would have also allocated millions annually for the extra need-based raises. If it is not included in the formula, a teacher raise is not considered permanent.
Lawmakers decided to fund the $2,000 payments without passing the formula, which effectively renders them a one-time stipend rather than an ongoing raise.
“We just insulted school employees by giving them a token pay raise for one year with a resolution that it will be done in future years," said Pope. "But we don’t know that."
The budget resolution marked the end of a session dominated by money spats and culture war battles. On one side of the money fight was Edwards and Legislative leadership who favored using the hundreds of millions of extra tax dollars to fund coastal projects, construction costs and the like. They hoped to use recurring state dollars to give raises to K-12 teachers, whose pay has long lagged behind the Southern regional average.
On the other were a small bloc of House conservatives who favored using the glut of extra cash to pay down some of the state's massive debt tied to state worker pensions. Doing so, they argued, would free up dollars in local schools' budgets which they could use to pay for raises.
Proponents argued that plan was fiscally prudent because paying down debt would not count towards the expenditure limit, an assertion debated by Legislative analysts.
In a win for Edwards, the final version of the budget included $44 million for early-childhood education funding, according to the governor and Zeringue, the Appropriations Committee chairman. Edwards had asked for $52 million for those programs, which the House tried to strip out entirely earlier in the session.
Staff writers Tyler Bridges and Sam Karlin contributed to this report.