BATON ROUGE, La. (BRPROUD) — Less than 24 hours after the governor announced his executive budget filled with once-in-a-lifetime investments, lawmakers are already debating what should stay and what should go.
Louisiana has an estimated $2.8 billion to spend this year between the American Rescue Act, a budget surplus and excess. Governor Edwards proposed major once-in-a-lifetime investments in his executive budget ranging from education investments, infrastructure projects, and paying down long overdue debts.
“Using a significant portion of this $2.8 billion on one-time expenditures that’s because we haven’t had the funds in the past we simply haven’t been able to provide funding to,” Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne said.
One of those projects is a new Mississippi River Bridge in Baton Rouge. The governor proposes to put $500 million away for it into a fund just for the one project. Representative Tanner Magee asked why the money isn’t going into the construction sub-fund that was created in the 2021 legislative session. That fund can only go toward actual construction and not costs such as administration.
Some lawmakers said that blueprints for a new bridge haven’t even been made yet, so it’s too soon to commit such a large pot of money to it. Sen. Bodi White pointed out it will be years before the construction on the roughly estimated $2 billion bridge would begin. Future legislatures could potentially take that $500 million out of the fund in years where there is a budget shortfall.
“It’s a lot of skin, I recognize that. But I think given the amount of money that we have right now it’s an appropriate time for the legislature to say we recognize the need and while we have these funds we’re going to put them in place so we can ultimately make that bridge a reality,” Dardenne said.
Lawmakers from rural parishes argued that the millions should go towards their crumbling roads and bridges that need repairs. Others who represent the Baton Rouge area say the I-10 corridor is crucial to commerce and has been a congestion problem for far too long.
“Folks like me who represent rural districts and we got to fix our roads first. I think it will be highly scrutinized on how we are spending these dollars on infrastructure so I think we can further that conversation. I just wanted to give you fair warning, it’s a little bit of a sticker shock for us,” Rep. Blake Miguez said.
Governor Edwards is once again pitching a high pay raise for teachers. He proposed a $1,500 raise for teachers and staff with the potential to raise it to $2,000 when the Revenue Estimating Committee meets again in May. But the economic outlook shows a potential deficit looming in a few years due to the half-cent sales tax set to sunset, $300 million of the vehicle tax moving towards the construction sub-fund, and post-pandemic growth slowing legislators worry it won’t be affordable down the road.
“I am just having a problem with reconciling this in terms of recurring dollars and how we’re going to fund the proposed raise,” Rep. Jerome Zeringue said.
Lawmakers made their own pleas for projects to be included in this budget such as infrastructure investments in northern Louisiana, mental health programs, and others they feel should take precedence over what the governor suggests.
The full proposed budget will go on to be debated in the regular legislative session this spring that will begin on March 14.