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Louisiana lawmakers near deadline to pass state's operating budget


BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — During the second to last day of Louisiana's legislative session, lawmakers cleared a major hurdle in crafting the state's fiscal plan — voting to breach the constitutional expenditure limit — but as the clock ticks down to adjournment, legislators still need to pass a budget.

For years, Louisiana’s financial woes under former Gov. Bobby Jindal forced lawmakers to cut areas of the budget. But now, faced with an estimated $2.2 billion in extra revenue, legislators are debating how to spend the more-than-expected funds.

Whether or not to breach the state’s expenditure restraints — inserted into the state constitution in the 1990s to reduce the growth of ordinary operating expenses — and take immediate advantage of surplus funds has been a point of contention between the two chambers for weeks.

House members initially resisted that plan, wanting to put the extra money in savings accounts for future use and to pay down debt. But after pressure from the Senate, and as the adjournment deadline nears, the Louisiana House voted 85-19 Wednesday to lift the spending cap by a total of $1.65 billion.

But the question remains: What will the actual operating budget look like?

At the start of session, Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, outlined a $45.7 billion spending plan for 2023-24. Edwards proposed using the surplus money for one-time transportation projects, $3,000 teacher raises, to pay off disaster-related debt owed to the federal government, and to offset expiring federal pandemic relief funds used to provide early learning access.

But the GOP-dominated House advanced a budget plan that stripped the teacher pay increase, investments into construction and additional early childhood education funding. Instead, lawmakers steered money toward paying down retirement debt. Republican lawmakers described the plan as fiscally responsible and argued it would save school districts money in the long run, allowing them to spend funds as they see fit — which could include raises for teachers.

The Senate's budget plan reinserted some of Edwards' proposals, including $2,000 teacher pay raises. In addition, hundreds of millions of dollars would be allocated for hospital funding and lawmakers’ local projects, but that money would only be accessed if the House voted to lift the state spending cap.

The House rejected the Senate amendments, sending the budget to a conference committee, a closed-door meeting made up of three lawmakers from each chamber, in the hopes of working out a deal in the final hours of session.

The House is expected to vote on the budget Thursday, and lawmakers must adjourn no later than 6 p.m.

If a budget plan is not passed or Edwards opposes a Legislature-approved fiscal plan, lawmakers could be called back for a special session. In that case, a three-fourths majority vote in the House and Senate would be needed to pass the budget bill.