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Dispute ties up public safety money

by Associated Press

Associated Press

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — About $43 million in spending, mainly earmarked for public safety programs, is stalled in the disagreement between Gov. John Bel Edwards and House Republican leaders over state income projections.
Sheriffs likely will get the funding they’re owed later in the year, and the Office of Juvenile Justice says it can make it through the budget cycle without the money it hoped to receive. But the corrections department, which gave prison guards a raise without the full financing for it, may have a harder time without the dollars.


The money was included in the tax and spending compromise between the Democratic governor and lawmakers. The $29.5 billion state operating budget was less than senators and Edwards wanted, so the Senate added a section in the final budget bill with the $43 million in items they’d like to receive financing if Louisiana brings in more money than forecast.
Economists for the Legislature and the Edwards administration now recommend boosting this year’s forecast by about $150 million, a move supported by the Edwards administration and Republican Senate President John Alario.
But Republican House Appropriations Chairman Cameron Henry blocked the state’s income forecasting panel Tuesday from increasing the projections. Henry and Republican House Speaker Taylor Barras call it premature to bump up estimates and spend the money.


If the forecast was boosted as Edwards wants, the Legislature’s joint budget committee would have to sign off on the $43 million in spending. More than $37 million of the money would flow to public safety programs.
Parish sheriffs are short $10.5 million they are owed for housing state inmates in their local jails this budget year. The Office of Juvenile Justice is slated to receive $10.8 million to open more dorms at a new juvenile prison in Bunkie; to repair older youth lock-ups; and to increase contracts for group home and other services in response to a law change that will move more teenage offenders from the adult to the juvenile prosecution system.
The Department of Corrections would receive $16.3 million, including $4 million to cover the rest of a corrections officer pay raise enacted this year. Corrections Secretary Jimmy LeBlanc said that even though he didn’t have all the money in hand, the raise was critical to help stem prison guard turnover rates that he said threaten safety.


The income projections must be boosted by Dec. 31 for the joint budget committee to spend the money on the $43 million list. After that deadline, agencies have to wait until the 2019 legislative session to see if they get the cash.
The state will owe the sheriffs their money, so they’re expected to get paid at some point. Lawmakers often fill in funding gaps to the sheriffs late in the budget year.
The Office of Juvenile Justice, according to agency spokeswoman Beth Touchet-Morgan, will work with the money it has. The new Acadiana Center for Youth will open in March with three dorms, rather than the full six available, she said.
“We won’t be laying off or cutting services or anything if we don’t get the money,” Touchet-Morgan said.
It’s unclear how the corrections department will compensate for the $4 million gap in its salary costs or the lack of the other money for vehicles and staff, if the agency never receives it. LeBlanc said he’s shuffled money from supplies at the state penitentiary and another prison to make sure the pay raise is covered, but he said that was only a short-term fix. He’s hopeful the forecast will be boosted at another meeting planned in December.
“We hope that everyone comes to their senses at some point and approves the revenue,” LeBlanc said Wednesday.


A half dozen other agencies also are on the $43 million list, including the secretary of state’s office, the attorney general’s office, the agriculture department, the natural resources department and the economic development department.

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