Louisiana’s financial picture is the brightest it has been since the years following Hurricane Katrina. An unprecedented influx of dollars – both temporary and permanent – provides a generational opportunity to make long-overdue investments in Louisiana’s underserved communities and put our state on a path to a more equitable economy.
Gov. John Bel Edwards’ budget recommendations to the Legislature would make meaningful progress on many fronts. Public-school teachers and college faculty would get modest pay increases. Providers of home- and community-based services would see higher reimbursement rates, which is a critical step to ensuring there are enough people available to care for vulnerable Louisianans who wish to remain at home.
The budget also proposes much-needed new investments in higher education, including for need-based college scholarships and the M.J. Foster Promise Program, which helps students from low- to moderate-income backgrounds train for jobs in high-demand occupations.
But there are critical areas where the plan falls short, most notably in how it would spend the $2.8 billion in surplus “one-time” funding that won’t be available in future years. This includes $1.4 billion in leftover pandemic relief funding, a $700 million surplus from the 2020-21 fiscal year, and $853 million in unanticipated revenue for the current fiscal year that can be repurposed for long-term needs.
Congress allocated those federal relief dollars with the idea of helping the people and communities most affected by the Covid-19 pandemic, which are disproportionately Black and low-income. That means putting money aside to address the affordable housing crisis that has affected many Louisiana communities. It means making a downpayment on a paid leave program so that workers who get sick – or have to take time from work to care for a family member – are able to do so without losing income.
It also means paying bonuses to the frontline workers, such as teachers and retail workers – who kept business running during the public health emergency, and making sure they have the services and resources needed to retrain for new jobs that pay higher wages.
Instead, the governor is proposing to use $550 million to top up the state’s Unemployment Insurance trust fund. Another $1 billion would be used for highway projects – half of which would go into a new fund as a downpayment on a future toll bridge in Baton Rouge. While no one who has driven on Louisiana’s highways disputes the need for transportation upgrades, it should not consume such a massive portion of these discretionary dollars. And steering these one-time relief dollars into the unemployment trust fund means prioritizing bosses and corporations over their hard-working staff.
Regular people in Louisiana are still struggling during our long recovery from Covid. The Legislature should take a more balanced approach to investing this year’s windfall: one that centers the people and communities with the greatest need.
The executive budget recommendations are just that – recommendations for spending that the Legislature now has time to review and make adjustments. This is only the beginning of a nearly five-month process. Already there are expectations that the budget forecast will be even rosier when it is updated again in May, and the governor has already said that teacher pay would be a top priority.
Finally, it’s easy to forget how recently the debates in Baton Rouge centered on which programs to cut, not where to invest. The Louisiana Budget Project applauds Gov. Edwards and the Legislature for their part in putting the state on a stronger financial footing. LBP will have more to say in the coming days about the ways these resources can be used to promote equity and create an economy where every Louisianan has a chance to thrive.
– Jan Moller