Three of Louisiana’s seven governor candidates said they want to “weaken” the office they are running to hold. (Photo credit: Wesley Muller/Louisiana Illuminator)
Louisiana lawmakers appeared to have settled on giving public school teachers and other school staff $2,000 and $1,000 annual raises, respectively, legislators across the political spectrum said this week.
Conservative House members said they are now willing to put a teacher pay raise directly into the state budget, removing the most significant opposition to doing so. Senate leaders in both political parties also confirmed that there appears to be an agreement on teacher pay.
“I’m very optimistic that [the teacher pay raises] will happen,” said Sen. Jimmy Harris, D-New Orleans, a member of the Senate Finance Committee that helps write the budget.
“I think it will be worked out,” said Rep. Lance Harris, R-Alexandria, who leads the House Education Committee.
The Senate Education Committee took an initial step toward raising teacher pay when it forwarded a school funding formula the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) approved to the Senate floor Friday. By law, the legislature is only supposed to approve teacher and staff pay raises after the state education board has included them in its funding formula request.
The BESE formula includes not only the $2,000 and $1,000 raises — totaling a little less than $200 million combined — but also $61 million worth of “differential pay” that school districts could use to give higher salaries to teachers in hard-to-fill positions. For example, the money could be used to boost pay for science, math and special education teachers who are typically more difficult to hire.
While the across-the-board pay raises have widespread support among lawmakers, it’s not clear if the “differential pay” proposal will also make it into the state’s final budget plan. Lawmakers could employ creative budgeting tactics to give teachers and school staff raises without implementing “differential pay” if desired.
“That’s something we will have to look at very hard” before we agree to fund it, Sen. Bodi White, R-Baton Rouge, head of the Senate Finance Committee, said of the “differential pay” proposal.
The $2,000 and $1,000 raises are not as high as Gov. John Bel Edwards had hoped to go. As late as Friday morning, Edwards was pushing for $3,000 pay increases for teachers and $1,500 for school staff during a press conference.
The governor said it was important Louisiana get as close as possible to the regional average in teacher pay for 16 southern states, but that goal seems out of reach. Louisiana’s average teacher pay for the 2021-2022 school year was $52,376, and the southern regional average was $56,309 for that same period. Since then, other southern states have given larger teacher pay increases than Louisiana, which means that pay gap might have widened.
The Louisiana House’s initial budget passed earlier this month included no teacher pay raises at all, so the $2,000 increase might be interpreted as a win for rank-and-file educators.
The House had proposed paying off local school system teacher retirement debt instead of including a direct teacher pay raise in the state spending plan. House members hoped that paying down the school system’s debt early would free up enough money for school districts to give out pay raises at the local level.
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“We’ve been fine the whole time with giving a teacher’s pay raise. It was just a question of how to do it,” said Rep. Jack McFarland, R-Jonesboro, chairman of the House Conservative Caucus.
Louisiana teacher unions opposed the House plan, saying there was no guarantee school systems would hand out a permanent raise. Senators in both political parties were also wary that school districts would benefit in an uneven manner. Some school systems might end up with more money available than others if the early teacher retirement debt payments were made.
Rep. Brett Geymann, R-Lake Charles, said conservative House members were able to compromise on the teacher pay increase and back off their proposal to pay off teacher retirement debt early, but they are still unwilling to bust through the state’s spending cap. Their opposition is complicating negotiations between the House, Senate and governor for the budget that starts July 1.
By law, state lawmakers cannot exceed the state’s spending cap set annually without two-thirds of the members of each chamber voting to raise that limit. The governor and senators are in favor of removing that restriction, but it’s not clear enough House members would vote to raise the cap at this point.
If legislators decline to breach the spending limit, they could significantly limit their ability to spend money on roads, bridges, university buildings and coastal restoration. Louisiana has an unprecedented amount of money available, but the spending cap puts hundreds of millions of those public dollars off limits.
House conservatives generally oppose large increases in government spending and are trying to rally their fellow House Republicans to vote against removing the cap. They have taken to wearing lapel pins with the number “36” — the number of House votes they need to block the spending limit from being raised.
Many House conservatives believe the money would be put to better use if it was saved for future budget cycles, when the state expects a drop in revenue. Legislators have voted to automatically cut the state sales tax in 2025, which is expected to cause a shortfall in state funding.
The governor and senators argue the state’s extra revenue is better spent on construction projects now, because building expenses will likely rise in future years. Louisiana has billions of dollars of needs in transportation infrastructure and on college campuses.
But including a teacher pay raise in the state budget plan will make it even harder to fund state construction projects for roads, bridges, universities and coastal restoration if the spending cap isn’t removed.
On Friday, lawmakers on the Senate Finance Committee said a failure to breach the spending cap might also affect state pay for law enforcement officers, health care spending and other higher education expenses — though they weren’t specific about what might be at risk.
The Senate, House and governor are running out of time to reach a budget agreement. Louisiana’s spending plan is supposed to be in place before lawmakers adjourn on the evening of June 8.
If they fail to come to a compromise by then, the legislators will have to come back into a special session later in June — and will face an even higher political hurdle to clear. In a special session, three-quarters of members in the House and Senate would have to agree to a budget plan.
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