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Senators craft Louisiana budget with more education money

by Associated Press

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Louisiana state senators crafted a $30 billion operating budget for next year that would boost college spending, give school teachers a pay raise and provide new dollars for early childhood education, after years of flat financing or cuts for those programs.

The Senate Finance Committee rewrote the House-backed spending proposal late Monday, to more closely match the wishes of Gov. John Bel Edwards for the financial year that begins July 1, particularly on public school financing.

Senators are backing a $140 million increase for K-12 schools, with $1,000 pay raises for teachers, $500 salary hikes for support workers and $39 million in block grant increases for school districts. That’s the financing plan sought by the Democratic governor and the state education board, but not the proposal devised by House Republican leaders.

The House version of the budget proposed larger raises, but no block grant money.

Next year’s budget proposal, advancing to the full Senate for debate, contains increases for health programs, the child welfare agency and the corrections department. State workers would get salary increases. Senior citizen services would get new funding.

Louisiana’s foster care program would be expanded to cover youth up to age 21. The TOPS program would cover full college tuition for all eligible students. Early learning programs would receive new dollars to cover children from birth to three years old.

The Medicaid rates paid to providers of home- and community-based services for the elderly and people with developmental disabilities would increase to the rates that had been paid in 2008, before they were slashed in more recent years.

But senators stripped out a House-sought increase for the Office of Motor Vehicles, aimed at reducing wait times for customers. They also removed financing lawmakers in the House proposed to expand Medicaid to cover more children with developmental disabilities whose parents currently make too much to qualify for the program.

After years of struggling amid budget gaps, the financial debate this year centers on how to spend new dollars available to lawmakers. Edwards and the majority-GOP Legislature last year agreed on a seven-year tax compromise that provided financial stability and new growth.

Combined with other budget bills, total spending across state, legislative and judicial agencies next year would top $34 billion. Legislative agencies would get a largely flat $96 million budget next year, and the Louisiana Supreme Court and the judiciary would get a standstill $173 million budget. Both the Legislature and judiciary are sitting on surpluses.

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